This issue of Religion & Liberty features an article on Arthur Koestler’s classic novel Darkness at Noon, which reminds us of the soul-crushing apparatus of the Soviet state under Stalin in ways, perhaps, that nonfiction could not. An interview with Nobel prize-winning economist Vernon Smith reveals that science, free markets and religious faith aren’t incompatible. All are prescient in ways I shall explain below.
As I put pen to paper for 2016’s last issue of Religion & Liberty, news broke of a poll indicating only 55 percent of Americans believe communism “is or was a problem,” compared with 91 percent of elderly U.S. citizens. As for my generation—the Baby Boomers—at least 80 percent of us remember a past where communism shackled untold millions and conspired to kill an estimated 110 million people in the past century. And we fear a future in which these horrors against humanity might be replicated.
Conducted by YouGov, the poll surveyed 2,300 Americans and also revealed that half of all millennials would vote for an avowed socialist, with 21 percent of the same age group willing to countenance unabashed communism. It gets much worse. The percentages of millennials unfamiliar with totalitarian tyrants of the last century are woefully low: Mao Zedong (42 percent), Ernesto “Che” Guevara (41 percent), Vladimir Lenin (33 percent) and Joseph Stalin (18 percent). The dearth of contemporary economic education also is dismaying—32 percent of millennials responded they were unfamiliar with Karl Marx!
How has this come to pass? How could we as a nation allow the relative prosperity of the past three decades to become proof positive of George Santayana’s dictum that those of us who forget the past are doomed to repeat it? When a nation such as ours educates our younger generations so poorly and we as a whole fail to reach the top 10 in the Human Liberty Index compiled by the Cato Institute, the Liberales Institut and the Fraser Institute, it’s nothing short of appalling. Even more appalling is that the same 2015 index placed the United States in the 20th position out of 170 nations.
The Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal cast our country in a more favorable light in their 2016 Index of Economic Freedom, wherein the United States is rated “mostly free,” with an 11 ranking out of 178 countries. Yet, still, it’s disconcerting to live in a country considered the epitome of freedom throughout the world and to find ourselves excluded from the top 10 countries ranked for freedom and not even considered the most free country in North America. According to the Index:
Americans continue to lose economic freedom. Following declines in seven of the past eight years, the United States this year has equaled its worst score ever in the Index of Economic Freedom. Ratings for labor freedom, business freedom, and fiscal freedom have flagged notably, and the regulatory burden is increasingly costly.
I’ll leave it to readers to suss out all the reasons why the United States has slipped so drastically from the “free” category to “mostly free.” However, I would like to point out the direct correlation between the millennials’ poll responses above and the subsequent and measurable decrease in freedoms we enjoy in our country. It’s as if we’re forced collectively to suffer the death of a great nation by a thousand cuts rendered by overweening regulations, taxation and government incursions enabled by a thinly veiled political hostility to religious faith.
Little by little and piece by piece, our country’s citizens willingly forfeit their freedoms for the empty promises and unforeseen consequences of ultimately stifling government oversight. Among our infringed liberties are those guaranteed but increasingly neglected in the First Amendment; namely, religious freedoms.
Over the years, Acton has gathered together clergy, religious, philosophers, artists and economists to help us state our case that ordered liberty and freedom are natural rights bestowed upon all humanity by God and persistently under attack by power-hungry rulers. It’s time to renew our mission to replenish and reinvigorate people of all ages in the understanding that religion and liberty are inextricable. It’s past time to win the hearts, minds and souls of the millennials who know little to nothing of our cause, moving the needle back from “mostly free” to simply “free.”
Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president and cofounder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.