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Liberty Legitimately Constrained

We devote Religion & Liberty to recognizing and discussing the delta that forms when faith, religion, liberty, economics, and culture come together. Depicting the exact contours of this entire delta is, of course, much too ambitious for this short column. Instead, I would like to consider just one of the tributaries pouring into it, namely, liberty.

Liberty should be understood as something that is not an end in itself. True liberty remains accountable to greater principles of faith and morality. Thus, freedom and moral responsibility wax and wane together. The Founding Founders of the United States of America, who were schooled in ancient and modern history, intended to keep the state in its proper sphere, to prevent it from invading domains better-suited to the church, family, and individual. But they also knew their institutional structure was not sufficient to sustain a free society. In their private correspondence and their public speeches, they frequently remind us that liberty cannot sustain itself outside of a moral framework. Liberty functions only as the freedom to operate in accordance with legitimate authority, namely the moral convictions that result from faith. Lord Acton, the great champion of individual liberty, would agree. The importance of human liberty arises in his writings on history in tandem with the importance of religion as the regulator of liberty. Lord Acton astutely recognized that religion must regulate liberty, because liberty itself provides no sound basis for a society’s legal and cultural structures, thus allowing human dignity, the keystone of any just civilization, to become compromised. It is not liberty, but strong faith and moral commitment that preserves human beings from being treated like just another mundane nuisance to be overcome during our daily routine.

Tragically, today that commitment is not as strong as it once was. Many misunderstand (at best) or subvert (at worst) the ideal of liberty by advocating that liberty requires the denial of any moral responsibility of and authority over the individual. This error begets libertinism, in which liberty becomes unfettered, an end in itself. People who subscribe to libertinism tend to speak in terms of rights without acknowledging that those rights carry any corresponding obligations. A right unaccompanied by responsibility is not a right at all, but rather it is an entitlement. Libertine entitlement encourages the marginalization of human beings. Under this conception of a right as an entitlement, society tolerates levels of barbarism, of official and unofficial varieties, that would have seemed unthinkable only twenty or thirty years ago. Ignoring this barbarism that allows for the marginalization of entire classes of human beings (such as the poor, the elderly, and the unborn) helps some to find libertinism appealing on the surface. Libertinism allows them to keep all their options open. The sad thing is that at the end of a libertine’s life all he or she will have are options, and these options amount to nothing after death ends the ability to choose any of them. Only in understanding liberty as limited by a moral framework, as the proper means to achieve virtue, will human dignity be preserved.