Session 3: Individual Liberty

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The Jesmond Conference: Session 3: Individual Liberty

The starting point for Christian Public Theology can be Paul's words in Romans 13.1-7:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed

However, that has to be balanced by the apostolic words in Acts 5.29, when the apostles were charged not to teach in the name of Jesus. The reply to the authorities, which has echoed for good and for freedom down the centuries, was "We must obey God rather than men." Also Romans 13 has to be balanced by John's vision in Revelation 13 of when the State is clearly demonic. The result of that Biblical teaching is then that, yes, when the State orders what God forbids or forbids what God orders, the Christian believer will obey God. But when there is good order the Christian believer will resist all attempted proposals for anarchism.

It also needs to be noted that while the State (the ruler) "does not bear the sword in vain", the teaching of Jesus and his example is that the sword cannot be used for the spread of the gospel. The New Testament is not the Old Testament, for now is a day of grace. Here, of course, is a difference between Christianity and the Jihadists and Islam, where Jesus rode into Jerusalem to die on a Cross. Mohammed rode into Medina to become a great warrior. And this is so relevant for Individual Liberty as we understand it today.

For concept of Individual Liberty, again, by itself and unqualified can mean so many different things.

What, of course, we want is "ordered liberalism" which is very different from some forms of Individual Liberty. Ordered liberty in healthy liberal democracies is the liberty that evolved after the 17th century conflicts and the wars of religion between the various Christian groups. Locke successfully argued that the sword should not be used to promote matters of faith; so the State should not punish people for what they believed. And this new liberty had a growing hatred of cruelty (such as burnings at the stake). So these were struggles by Christians not for a liberty that was an amorphous freedom from notions of the good life and beliefs, but freedom for various shades of belief that were mostly Christian.

By contrast when 100 years later the godless French Revolutionaries brought in as their idea of the good life the three values of a Liberty, Equality and Fraternity the result was disastrous and, when godless, those values have been disastrous since the late 18th century. Fraternity pursued in defiance of God produced a nationalistic cult based on a racial-blood brotherhood in the form of Nazism, which was defeated in 1945. Equality pursued in defiance of God produced an utterly ruthless Marxist mission for the proletariat in the form of Stalinism, which was finally defeated in 1989. And liberty pursued in defiance of God is with us today in the form of selfish libertarianism, uncontrolled behaviour and creeping totalitarianism.

And that is the first great danger of unqualified Individual Liberty – creeping totalitarianism.

The trouble with Wolfenden and Hart championing John Stuart Mill and his notion of liberty is that Mill wrote much more than his On Liberty which as we have seen has led to what Locke would call "libertinism and licentiousness" and so subtly legislating for a new immorality (not an absence of morality). In her seminal book On Liberty and Liberalism Gertrude Himmelfarb points out that there were two Mills. For this other Mill elsewhere could write that …

"government exists for all purposes whatever that are for man's good: and the highest and most important of these purposes is the improvement of man himself as a moral and intelligent being;" … that every man should be encouraged to "use his own judgement," but that to encourage him to "trust solely to his own judgment, and receive or reject opinions according to his own views of the evidence" was to make him a "mere slave to the authority of the person next to him"; that an essential ingredient of civilization was an education in discipline to inculcate in each person the habit of "subordinating his personal impulses and aims, to what were considered the ends of society"; that civilized society also presupposed the existence of some "fundamental principles" which men agreed in "holding sacred" and which they placed "above discussion"; that morality depended upon the cultivation of the "social feelings" and "collective" interest of mankind transcending the individual's selfish feelings and interests, and that this moral end could best be promoted by "laws and social arrangements", "education and opinion"; that the sign of an "advancing civilization" was the fact that man was "riveted" more and more to his "social state" and removed more and more from a state of "savage independence" or "miserable individuality"; that the moral defect of Fourierism [a Utopianism of Mill's time] was its reliance on the "spontaneous passions" and on the notion that "nobody is ever to be made to do anything but act just as they like".

And having quoted Mill, Himmelfarb herself writes this:

This is assuredly not the Mill of On Liberty. But it is a Mill who more truly deserves the title of "liberal". For it is his liberality of mind and temper that can prevent us from being seduced and ultimately tyrannized by any "one very simple principle", even so honorific a principle as liberty.

So people in the tradition of Wolfenden and Hart may have done untold damage, literally, to Western Civilization, by ignoring or being ignorant of the full picture. As Robert Hawkins writes:

Mill was a proponent of two liberalisms, each committed to a quite different vision of liberty. First there was the pluralist Mill, who believed that society and government could operate for the good of the individual. The Mill of On Liberty, however, rejects authority and coercion of any form in favour of absolute liberty. No other value is acknowledged – not tradition, nor community, nor even fraternity. It is this Mill that has had the greatest, and most damaging, effect on our politics. By rejecting authority, we assert that there is but one measure of what is true: the individual. With the ensuing decline of traditional order, however, the only way to fill the many – and legitimate - needs of those individuals cut loose from communities is through the impersonal, bureaucratic, monolithic state.

How is it possible for Mill to be so confusing? How could the man who wrote what has just been quoted also write that key text for Hart's lectures that intellectually underpinned the sexual revolution in Britain beginning in the late 1960s? The text – again – is this:

"the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because in the opinions of others to do so would be wise, or even right."

One answer is that Mill was taken as a secular prophet by Hart's generation, and prophets, like Elijah in the Bible are given to exaggeration (Elijah claimed he alone had remained faithful to God, when in fact 7000 others had as well)!

Undoubtedly Hawkins' analysis, as Himmelfarb puts it, that "Government tends to become unlimited when liberty itself is thought to be unlimited", is right. It is a consequence of what Lord Beveridge, the architect of the Welfare State, so clearly saw. He saw that the state cannot meet so many human needs. So when it has to try, because of its inefficiency it becomes too large, costly and illiberal. Lord Beveridge wrote:

The State is or can be master of money, but in a free society it is master of very little else. The making of a good society depends not on the State but on citizens acting individually, or in free association with one another, acting on motives of various kinds, some selfish, others unselfish, some narrow and material, others inspired by love of man and love of God. The happiness or unhappiness of the society in which we live depends upon ourselves as citizens, not on the instrument of political power which we call the State.

Nor is this analysis a matter of "right" and "left". For liberalism as expounded in On Liberty has become a dominant philosophy among elites in Britain. Indeed, that is why Individual Liberty is one of the British Values. Many Christian people while supporting individual liberty but not in absolutist terms would not have put this as a value without the pursuit of truth. The fundamental Christian insight – Jesus' insight – is that it is the truth that makes you truly free. So because individual liberty is such a trump card, as Hawkins says …

"… most of our politics is therefore devoted to 'expanding' or 'protecting' the rights of the individual in one way or another – with the left sympathetic to liberty in the moral realm, the right in economic affairs. But the sole emphasis on individual rights tends to obscure, or even deny, the value of the communities that actually give meaning to our lives. And the demand on the centralized State to perform those functions previously handled through traditional arrangements is inevitably greater than the State's ability to serve these needs."

If the Hart lectures led to the pursuit of individual liberty being the cause of creeping totalitarianism, another Professor at Oxford also stirred the waters of liberty in what now can be seen an unhelpful way. A year after the Wolfenden Report, Sir Isaiah Berlin gave as his inaugural lecture a paper entitled Two Concepts of Liberty. In simple terms Berlin argued that political philosophies of "freedom for" resulted in tyranny; it was, therefore, safest only to have philosophies of "freedom from" (that is, freedom from any ideas of the good life). This philosophy is now, surely, bankrupt.

In the Cold War it motivated a fight for freedom from Soviet tyranny from 1958-1989. Defeating a common enemy was an over-arching Western unifying public philosophy and purpose. But since victory has been achieved, the naked public square lacking a common enemy is now seeing this philosophy of freedom from change subtly into a freedom for an irrational and tyrannical secularism and an opposition to the British majority who, if they had to choose, would identify the "good life" with the Christian tradition while recognizing freedoms for other religions and beliefs within the law

What, therefore, should our freedom, that we enjoy, be for according to the Christian tradition? And we have to be careful, for "freedom" seems always on a knife edge!

Again we can go back to Archbishop William Temple. He argued for three principles in a Christian social order, freedom, fellowship and service. So his answer was that freedom secured by liberal democracy should be for fellowship and service. Those three, freedom, fellowship and service defined his idea of the "common good"

He supported democracy because it provides a chance for each person, even if only indirectly, to be involved and exercising a small measure of responsibility. But Temple wanted freedom and responsibility to be a positive – not just freedom from, but freedom for creative and selfless living. Responsibility was not just for the sake of having a say, but for the sake of contributing to the common good of fellowship and service.

Temple was concerned with fellowship because much political theory was focusing in his time and still is today exclusively on the individual, on the one hand, and the state on the other hand. So debates focus round: freedom, liberty and human rights, as individual concerns, and around: peace, justice and the economy, as state concerns. Without the Christian Tradition this is true of these four British Values we are considering.

But Temple wanted to emphasize those mediating communities between the individual and the state, chief among which, as we have seen, is the family, but also churches, schools, colleges and other groupings. He knew that revolutionary groups wanted to destroy the normal heterosexual married family. In his lifetime this had happened on Soviet Russia. As the Russian dissident Igor Shafarevich explained:

the Socialist project of homogenizing society demands that the family be vitiated or destroyed. This can be accomplished in good measure by profaning conjugal love and breaking monogamy's link between sex and loyalty.

So weakening, intentionally or unintentionally these mediating structures and especially the married family where cultural and religious values are transmitted most effectively, weakens the whole social fabric. That is why the health of the married heterosexual family, committed together for life, must be high on any government's or church's agenda. It is also why the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013 needs to be repealed as damaging to the institution of marriage, and long-term, to children; and why we need to have strategies to reduce the "divorce culture" and for the same reasons.

Thirdly, Temple stressed service as part of the common good. For a range of reasons he thought that important. But it was particularly important for its emphasis on duties rather than rights. He thought that for historic reasons the democratic movement had taken its stand on rights, but that was not the way to true social progress. That is to be found not in rights but in duties. In terms of social legislation and opportunities duties are the other side of the coin to rights. So what is a duty for one man – for example, that he observes a no-parking sign –is another man's right, that his drive-way is not obstructed. "But," says Temple, "the difference in the temper of the movement that rests on rights will be aggressive, violent, contentious; and the temper of a movement that rests on duties will be persuasive, public spirited harmonious.

Individual Liberty, understood in Temple's way and that of the Christian tradition, is, I believe, what we should work for.

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