Twenty-first century Christians and conservatives generally have seen the ideals and rhetoric of freedom employed against itself. Used throughout human history to appeal to justice for those unfairly treated by authority, ideas of “rights,” “freedom,” and “liberation” have become oppressive, really allowing anyone with sufficient skill to insist on grave injustices and claim victim status by altering language. To change language means one can shape discussion from the start to get a desired result.
Much of the language change has been in line with the feminist focus on personal life, which was held to be oppressive for women because of religious belief, existing law, language conventions, and common attitudes. The Left perennially proposes progress by government action, so if there is to be progress in the conditions of private life, it is the government which should take action.
In the slogan (now seeming to gain retrospective attention) of 1960s feminism, that “the personal is political,” the New Left, of which it was a part, laid claim to address dissatisfaction in life, and thus the meaning and value of life. It therefore conduces to political control of private life.
If personal life requires political action to rectify injustice the result is more and more state control of personal life. As “rights” accumulate, so does state intervention to enforce them. Ironically, the more “rights” there are, the less freedom there is. In simultaneously freeing people from the “thou shalt nots” of the traditional moral constraints on personal life, while guaranteeing that it will be secure by establishing “rights” for more and more specific things (e.g., contraception, abortion, genetic disability or pregnancy) the state specifies ever more exactly the shape of the good life. Thus the focus on “rights” destroys the personal freedom it tries to establish. This is why what is now understood as social liberalism involves political control of private life, and is really the enemy of personal freedom.
Over the last decade, we have seen the use of civil rights law to regulate personal life, specifically attacking the religious morality of self-denial and self-control, and establishing a secular morality of personal gratification. Important in this effort has been the concept of “positive rights,” praised by President Obama, which is the right to be assisted, and thus an individual’s duty to others. It is convenient for social liberalism that by speaking of “positive freedom,” freedom can be made into a duty. Inescapably, it involves specifying the good life, and clearly aspires to be superior to the old “negative freedom” of classical liberalism. The latter specifies what the state cannot do, but otherwise leaves people free to pursue their own beliefs about the good life.
At the present time, we see the result of a long running argument between social liberals and social radicals, which it appears the radicals have won. The former originally simply wanted a “negative” freedom (or libertarianism) against traditional moral constraints in personal life (e.g., laws against adultery, sodomy, pornography, soft drugs such as marijuana, etc.). They thought (and doubtless many still think) that personal life should be the realm of “choice and freedom,” and that the choices we make in personal life are based on the real nature of things (such as biological sex). Radicals believe that private life is controlled by oppressive cultural ideas, and thus needs to be corrected by external authority. In a war of liberation, radicalism is naturally the cutting edge of liberation, and can more easily prevail.
The social radicalism now driving the feminist, pro-abortion, and LGBT movements which constitute much of the sexual revolution thus seek to control the private as well as public spheres. If the purpose of the state is not governing according to an unchanging order of justice, but a messianic task of improving the world, then earlier revolutions against monarchical or aristocratic rule, or the subjugation of one nation or race by another, must be followed by the state addressing dissatisfaction in personal life.
Removing these dissatisfactions becomes a goal of the state. This (at least is held to mean) equality between the sexes in informal social practice and life as well as before the law, social acceptance and even celebration of all consensual sexual relationships, freedom from family responsibilities through easy divorce and abortion, and replacement of parental with state authority. Ultimately it would reasonably mean freedom from constraining religious ideas, such as religious fellowships that include believers only or the belief in hell.
Unsurprisingly, we see the effort to destroy the social conservative Christian subculture in educational institutions, medical establishments, and even churches. Because the state is now addressing the meaning and value of life (to say that gratification is its meaning), the state is now addressing exactly the same area as the various religions with an often conflicting answer.
Because the American left has focused on the language of rights in its struggle to change society, and personal life is now the focus of a messianic mission, it presents what are really policy proposals as newly discovered rights, and thus not topics for debate. An earlier article by this writer showed how the leftist effort at social engineering has subverted the classical liberal idea of natural rights, resulting in long lists of “rights,” which seem to outline a wonderful life for everyone, but really require substantial government intervention in society.
Notice in display of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights shown in the linked article how vague some rights are (e.g., a “right to privacy,” “to dignity and social protections,” “rest and leisure,” “an adequate standard of living,” and “a world that enables and protects rights.”) And since “no one can take away your human rights” these rights, if they are truly rights, can be presented not as a matter of public or political discussion, but issues to be litigated in courts, and ordered by judges on the basis of their own sensibilities against the will of the rest of the body politic.
A shorter (but no less problematic) list of rights specifically addressing issues raised by feminists includes the right to vote, which is objective, but most others are vague (“the right to choose,” “the right to quality daycare,” “the right to speak your mind, instead of being dismissed,” “the right to have impossible beauty standards removed from your life.”) “The right to marry, despite your sexual orientation” doesn’t make clear which sex, but from the general viewpoint of personal autonomy, clearly means either sex. And some, such as the right to be “represented” in “religious institutions,” and to “financial independence” would involve radical state interventions in society; the first, or course, being a gross violation of religious freedom. Remember again that these proposals are supposed to be a matter of right, not a matter for democratic decision.
The most basic right in lists of this type is clearly what we might call “the right not to be offended.” Personal offense really lies at the heart of the rights demanded, and would involve curtailing freedom of expression. So far, a strong free speech doctrine has prevailed in the United States, although in private institutions expression can (very properly) be restricted – along leftist lines, if the organization wants. It is important to remember that any individual freedom the state enforces at a liberal institution can also be enforced at a conservative one. In universities, free speech and association at Cornell or Columbia must also mean free speech and association at Biola or Liberty University.
But free speech, although still strongly defended by the U.S. Supreme Court, is under legal assault. Recent New York City legal guidelines prohibit use of the word “illegal alien” as demeaning, and prohibit contacting federal authorities about illegal aliens. This is clearly against the First Amendment, but in Canada, where there is no First Amendment, a law requiring compelled speech in the use of gender pronouns was enacted in 2017.
Looking back on the effort to find in personal life a new venue for revolution, we can observe that affluence has made the New Left and the identity politics it gave birth to possible. Any dissatisfaction one might feel in personal life could, by the spirit of the leftist cultural revolution, be addressed by the state, with the power of the state. By seeking to use government power to get what want they want in personal life, social radicals have introduced state control into personal life.
Complete satisfaction of all desires is not possible – there can be no equality of behaviors. Preferring those deemed “oppressed” is based on mere sensibility. There will always be dissatisfaction. The success of the order and liberty found in the American nation has resulted in enormous affluence. We must accept some measure of dissatisfaction.
Christians are bound to obey God rather than men in any case, which means obeying his Word in Scripture regardless of prevailing ideas of liberty, equality, or the meaning of life. To the wider world, we must insist that we cannot disobey God (i.e., sin) by engaging in or being complicit in the sin the world wants to liberate, and regards as essential for human well-being. If the world does not find that acceptable (and it will not) we can only plead that our obedience is based on a sincere apprehension of what we know to be the ultimate reality, namely God. We must also insist that even if people do not believe Scripture, mere desire does not justify satisfying it. It must be within the confines of natural law to avoid tyranny, poverty, and barbarism. But only God can satisfy the human heart in any circumstance. We cannot expect that an affluent but godless society will satisfy us.