scared young woman

Is Liberty Becoming a Scary Idea?

In the course of a recent radio interview about religious liberty, the interviewer stated that his numerous interviews with different people about that subject suggested that our society is becoming increasingly factionalized and that each faction is increasingly afraid of what the other factions will do to them. What, he asked, was the solution?

Before I answer that question, I must tell you that his observation reminded me of a remark a Christian millennial made to me about two years ago. The millennial was warning me that the legal principle that allowed a Christian wedding vendor not to provide services in connection with a same-sex “marriage” ceremony might someday be used to allow a vendor to not serve those having a Christian marriage ceremony.

The millennial further opined that conservative Christians might someday find themselves unserved by a host of businesses. Given that a restaurant in Knoxville had recently chosen not to serve a certain state senator because of his political views on LGBT issues, I acknowledged he might be right.

Going back to the radio interview, I think the journalist’s observation is correct—we are more factionalized and more fearful. Muslims are concerned about how various non-Muslim factions will treat them. LGBT activists and socially conservative Christians are each concerned about how the other’s agenda will affect them.

These concerns are valid. Law must recognize some values and the law will protect those values. For example, if we are going to have civil marriages based on government-issued licenses (permission slips, you might say), then the law will have to recognize someone’s view of marriage. While I don’t think civil government can be indifferent to marriage, it certainly can’t be indifferent to civil marriage.

But when it comes to our interactions with one another, not our interactions with civil government, it seems to me that the issue is liberty.

Our Founders understood that liberty in our interactions with one another was a societal good and was to be protected. But it was not to be protected from simply dumb and mean things by another person in the private sector. That’s why the Bill of Rights does not apply to private actions; it applies only to government actions.

To our Founders, the greatest threat to liberty did not come from whether an individual or individual business owner wanted to interact with me, but from civil government mandating interactions. A civil government large and powerful enough to mandate certain interactions I like can mandate certain interactions I do not like.

But, you say, people do dumb and mean things to each other. Yes, they do. It boggles my mind that someone once thought a person of a skin color different from mine should not eat in the same restaurant as me. I can appreciate the sentiment that would say such wrong-headed actions must be outlawed. But, again, the power that can mandate certain interactions I think are right can mandate interactions I don’t think are right.

When civil government assumes the power to mandate individual interactions, two things tend to happen. First, liberty is lost and everyone rightly becomes concerned about or fearful of how civil government’s power will be used against them. That, in turn, leads to factions as those who are fearful of government-mandated interactions band together to protect themselves from those who may band together to impose that mandate on them.

I understand the concern and the fear the journalist noted. I share it. But is the answer more government or more liberty?

I think the better answer is more liberty. Personally, I’m more concerned about what civil government will do with its power of coercion than I am with what a vendor will do with his liberty.

What about you? Does the idea of more liberty scare you?


David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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