“My chief hope for the future is that the common people have not parted company with their moral code.”
While serving as Allied Commander during World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower, later the 34th President of the United States, told his troops in North Africa, “You are fighting for the right to live as you please, provided you don’t get in someone’s hair.” Later in the speech he said, “We are fighting for the liberty and dignity of the human soul.”
Eisenhower may have thought the two ends were the same, or at least pointed in the same direction, but there are significant differences between them. The first statement has no moral content and the second is infused with it. Perhaps he thought we can have both, that the two causes can supplement one another if what people “please” contributes to “human dignity.” But that is not always the case: People doing what they please can really get into other people’s hair, and that produces misery and war. Eisenhower found himself commanding troops in North Africa because Hitler got into a lot of people’s hair.
“Liberty” is a term with deep roots in political discourse, especially in Western countries. It is derived from Old French (“liberte”) in the 14th century and means the right “to choose,” which fits the first meaning defined by Eisenhower. But I want now to call attention to another term often used as a synonym for “liberty.” It was not used by Eisenhower in that particular speech, but he might well have used it on other occasions, because we probably all have at one time or another. The word is “freedom.”
“Freedom” derives from Old English and meant “power of self-determination.” By the late 14th century, it meant “exemption from arbitrary restrictions.” Even then, we can see differences in nuance between liberty and freedom, the former emphasizing the “do what you please” qualities and the second carrying a value, i.e., freedom from arbitrary control, i.e., control for which there is no moral justification. The terms are often used interchangeably, but they need to be distinguished because they point to very different kinds of behavior, “liberty” referring to morally indifferent choices and “freedom” underscoring the moral significance of one choice over another.
American historian David Hackett Fischer used the two terms as the title of a giant 850-page volume published in 2004. Fischer’s Liberty and Freedomtraces their development in American politics from the Revolution to modern times. Here is Fischer’s distinction: “Liberty refers mainly to ideas of independence, separation, and autonomy for an individual or a group. Freedom means the rights of belonging within a community of free people.”1 Notice the communal emphasis in “freedom,” absent in “liberty.” The latter term he associates with separatism, and notes its popularity in the antebellum South. “Only in America was racism linked to a tradition of liberty.” Later in the book he quotes a poem by black writer Langston Hughes:
There are words like Freedom
Sweet and wonderful to say.
On my heart-strings freedom
sings All day everyday.
There are words like Liberty
That almost make me cry.
If you had known what I knew
You would know why.2
Hughes’s negative feelings about “liberty” probably came from his experience with Jim Crow laws and customs. Hotel and restaurant managers in the South would invoke “liberty,” or similar rights-claims, to justify their exclusion of blacks. More broadly, “states’ rights” was an all-purpose justification for racial segregation.
Fischer allows that both liberty and freedom have played constructive roles in the maturation of American culture, and sometimes he seems to forget himself and uses the terms synonymously. I could resort to other nouns, such as “communalism” versus “individualism” to distinguish them, but those terms fail to note the similarities along with the differences between liberty and freedom.
Freedom: Hitting the Virtuous Mark
“Freedom” also has deep roots in Western history and culture, even deeper than “liberty.” For the ancient Greeks and Romans, “liberal education” meant “education appropriate for free men.” Aristotle defined man as a zoon politikon(“an animal who lives in a polis,” a city-state) and as a zoon logon ekhon, “a living being capable of speech.” Aristotle was formulating a view common among the ancient Greeks and Romans, that the central concern of free people was to live together in a community and talk with each other—share ideas, agree and disagree on projected courses of action.3 Unavoidably, their conversations touched on moral issues. Aristotle’s ethical and political writings never shrank from offering what we call value-judgments: judgments about good and bad city-states, good and bad people, virtue and vice. His ethics were grounded in teleology, a term we must understand if we are to see what lies at the root of his argument. From the Greek telos, meaning “end” or “function,” teleology is the study of things, animals, or persons from the standpoint of their purpose. The purpose of a ship is to carry goods and people through water. If it fails at this it can’t really be called a ship. The function of a horse is to do the same on land. Failing that, it doesn’t qualify as a horse.
What of human animals? What is their function? Aristotle prefaces his answer with these rhetorical questions: “Have the carpenter, then, and the tanner certain functions or activities, and has man none? Is he born without a function?”4 For Aristotle the function of man is to live happily with other human beings in a community. This needs to be unpacked, and Aristotle devotes himself to the task mainly in two books: his Nicomachean Ethics and his Politics. In the latter he says that anyone who can’t live communally with other humans, or doesn’t need to, is not a man but “either a beast or a god.”5 As for “living happily,” which comes from the Greek eudaimonia, it can also be rendered “well-being” or “flourishing.” It is not a momentary high but a settled state of fulfillment proper alone to humans. Aristotle waxes lyrical in describing the life of virtuous people:
Their life is also in itself pleasant. . . Now for most men their pleasures are in conflict with one another . . . but the lovers of what is noble find pleasant the things that are by nature pleasant; and virtuous actions are such, so that these are pleasant for such men as well as in their own nature. Their life, therefore, has no further need of pleasure as a sort of adventitious charm, but has its pleasure in itself. . . . Happiness then is the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing in the world.6
Integrally linked to “virtue” is “practical wisdom,” meaning “the quality of mind concerned with things just and noble for man the things which it is the mark of a good man to do.”7 In an obvious allusion to archery, Aristotle writes, “Virtue makes us aim at the right mark, and practical wisdom makes us take the right means.”8 Practical wisdom thus enables us “to do the things that tend towards the mark, and to hit it.” But without virtue, practical wisdom is useless, or worse than useless. Intelligence gets corrupted into knavery or cunning. “Wickedness perverts us and causes us to be deceived about the starting-points of action.”9
In sum, this is what Aristotle means by freedom: a state of being in which a man or woman is able to make a correct judgment of what constitutes a virtuous act and knows what needs to be done to hit that mark. A good community is one that enables and encourages people to act in such a manner. As David Bentley Hart puts it: “We are free when we achieve that end toward which our inmost nature is oriented from the first moment of existence, and whatever separates us from that end—even if it comes from our own will—is a form of bondage.”10
In the Middle Ages a number of Aristotle’s works, thought to have been lost forever with the collapse of the Roman Empire, turned up in Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East. Translated from Greek into Arabic, largely by Muslims, then into Latin by Christians, they soon found their way into the new universities in France, England, and Italy where they were seized eagerly by scholars hoping to gain new insights from the old texts. The best-remembered of these “scholastic” thinkers is St. Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa Theologiae and other works attempted to synthesize Aristotle and other pre-Christian writers with Christian doctrine. To Aristotle’s four basic virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage, Aquinas added three “supernatural virtues”: faith, hope, and charity. Moreover, even in the secular realm, Aquinas emphasized the internal good of the virtues: Justice is not only a political virtue, it also enriches the human soul.11 Thus Aquinas, and the other “schoolmen,” as they were called, set out to find an acceptable link between pre-Christian moral philosophy and the teachings of the Church.
They found a link, or at least Aquinas did, in their concept of human freedom. True freedom is not doing what you please. It is emancipation from behavior counter to the life of rational virtue. In this view of things, we are free when we achieve the end toward which our nature is oriented. Here again was Aristotle’s teleology: the “end” or purpose of a human being, which is happiness, fulfillment, human flourishing. Whatever separates us from that, even if it comes from our own wills, is not freedom but slavery. We are free not merely because we can choose, but only when we are fitted to make well-considered choices. To be free was thus, as historian Patrick Deneen puts it, “to be free from enslavement to one’s basest desires, which could never be fulfilled, and the pursuit of which could only foster ceaseless craving and discontent.”12 In Christian anthropology, then and now, “being human is the only criterion for membership in the community of persons.”13 There was no place in classical Greek or Roman culture for that kind of thinking.
Yet even as Christian moral ideals spread among the European population and eventually to the farthest reaches of the world, their metaphysical underpinnings began to be challenged, first in the university community and then within the larger society of readers and thinkers. Within a few centuries after Aquinas’s death the word “scholastic” had become synonymous with hair-splitting, obscurantism, and irrelevance. New thinkers emerged with more arresting, daring things to say. In 1532 in The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli asserted that people seeking power should “learn how not to be virtuous, and to make use of this or not according to need.”14 As philosopher Pierre Manent observes, “what is so significant in Machiavelli’s repeated advice is not the fact that he invites the prince to do evil when circumstances require it, but that he asks him for this reason to renounce his conscience in advance, to dismiss in advance the natural guide and judge of human actions.”15
Machiavelli may have been the first to openly challenge the core premises of classical and medieval thought, especially its views of the nature and purpose (“end”) of human beings. But he was hardly the last. Over the next three centuries a time-traveler would be staggered by their diversity. All kinds of imaginary “states of nature” were drawn up as starting-points or cautionary tales, “utopias” were proposed for imitation, and of course there were the new religions (or variations of the old) that generated new conflicts. After three centuries of off-again-on-again wars, some philosophers were ready to throw in the towel. Abandoning the quest for a virtuous polity, their watchword was no longer Freedom but the morally neutral Liberty, which General Eisenhower defined as “the right to live as you please, provided you don’t get in someone’s hair.”
Liberty: The Sovereign Self
I am not going to scorn liberty for its moral neutrality. Right now, I am drinking a cup of tea—simply because I like to. I don’t need to demonstrate tea’s health properties or even care if it has any. I just like drinking it. And the same would apply if it were wine. One reason the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was such a monumental flop was that millions of normal, law-abiding Americans could not understand why they should stop drinking something provided and even sanctified by Jesus Christ. The worst result of Prohibition is that it taught even middle-class people contempt for law. In Chicago, that gave us Al Capone and his gang (although the members of Capone’s Chicago gang could at least shoot straight; no toddlers died at their hands). Prohibition was an attempt to control alcohol abuse, which had risen to unprecedented levels in nineteenth-century America. But use is not abuse, and no proof has ever been shown that the moderate use of wine, whiskey, or beer gets into anyone’s hair, even the drinker’s.
The best case for Liberty as defined here was written by English philosopher John Stuart Mill in 1859. In On Liberty Mill wrote: “The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle,” which is that “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of 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.” Seen in isolation, I find it impossible to quarrel with this assertion. During the Covid years American politicians interfered in major ways with our individual liberties, sometimes without any solid proof that such measures were necessary. A cold shower of Millian individualism might wake us up to the dangerous pretensions of the administrative state. During the 2021 Democratic mayoral debates in New York City, a questioner from the audience asked all the contenders, “Which foods would you ban?,” and each struggled to come up with the right answer. None saw fit to react as Mill would have, by asking, “What gives government the right to ban food?” A New Yorker from an earlier generation, say the 1950s, probably would have shouted, “What the hell are you talking about?”
Even so, Mill’s contention that the only time speech and actions can legitimately be banned is when they cause “harm to others” has a serious flaw. It turns on the meaning of the word “harm.” Mill would readily agree that any words or acts that cause physical or financial harm to others are justly punishable by law. But what about moral harm? Here we enter waters treacherous for anyone navigating solely by libertarianism. Since the word “liberty” is empty of moral content, Mill can’t even enter a discussion of that question—so he brushes it away. He regards such thinking as, well, parochial. Speaking of the average English Christian, he says that “it never troubles him . . . that the same causes that made him a churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Pekin.” In Mill’s view, the Christian religion falls “far below the best of the ancients.”16 Yet the ancient pagan Aristotle asked the same question that the medieval Catholic Aquinas later asked: the teleological question, what is liberty for? Putting it another way: Liberty to do what? Think of someone who drinks excessively (a self-regarding act), then comes home and causes havoc within his family (an other-regarding act). If our focus is entirely on liberty, there is really no hope of preventing this sad outcome. But if our focus is on freedom, we would reach out to such a person, urging him—and providing him the means—to free himself and his family from a destructive vice. It might not work, but sometimes it does, and that is better than doing nothing, which is all that liberty per se has to offer.
American politics and law have been heavily weighted in favor of liberty. According to the Declaration of Independence, it is “self-evident” that all people possess “unalienable rights,” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and the Constitution’s Bill of Rights lists ten basic liberties, the ninth of which closes off any possible loophole by holding that its listing of rights “shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Thomas Jefferson was all in for this—he wrote almost all of the Declaration and was a big fan of the libertarian French Revolution (“Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity”). Jefferson’s frenemy, John Adams, spoke much more cautiously about America’s constitutional liberties: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other.”17 What Adams meant was that our Constitution needs the moral boundaries supplied by Judeo-Christian religion; without that bracing it won’t work. Which raises the inevitable question: How has Christianity been holding up in the West over the last three centuries?
In Europe at least, not very well. Leaving aside the horrific massacres of the clergy and faithful during the French Revolution, it was in the intellectual realm in Europe that the more lasting damage was done. By the end of the nineteenth century, the theology that had once supported Christianity was being picked to pieces, particularly in German universities where historical-critical studies “explained” Christianity by explaining it away. New philosophies denied that humans had any purpose—we are thrown into a world without meaning or destiny. In social theory, new voices began asking whether the Christian hope of conversion really works for certain classes or races of people. Others in the academy began asking why Christians had to keep talking about helping the helpless, especially when that meant keeping “mental defectives” alive to pass their genes down to subsequent generations. As for the Christian virtue of humility, some prominent European thinkers called it a “slave mentality.” Vulgarized fragments of these philosophies found their way into the totalitarian movements that devastated Europe in the twentieth century. Despite the defeat of Nazism and Soviet Communism, the damage inflicted on Christianity during the last century is palpable in Western Europe—its grand cathedrals have become museums for tourists. Most Europeans now reserve church attendance for special occasions; it is mosque attendance that is growing in Europe.
Christianity’s vitality has continued much longer in America, first because of the solid foundation built for it by the New England Puritans and the later Puritan diaspora in the Upper Midwest and the Northwest Coast. Along the way it was given fresh jolts of energy by two “Great Awakening” movements of evangelical Protestantism, one between 1730 and 1750, the other from the 1850s to the early 20th century. Meantime, the arrival of nearly a million Irish, driven by the potato famine in Ireland (1845-52), brought worshipers, clergy, and eventually Catholic schools and colleges to America. Later in the century a new wave of Catholic immigrants, this time from Italy, came to America to escape poverty and oppression. Despite fierce resistance in Protestant quarters, Catholic doctrines, holidays, and patron saints made their way into the mainstream of American culture. By the twentieth century, particularly by 1945, the ill-feelings between the two branches of Christianity in America had been mended in the trenches and on the home fronts of two world wars.
Then, at some point in the 1960s, before it was really much noticed, an erosion began. Over the next forty years the erosion steadily increased, and today it has become a landslide. Any Catholic of a certain age can remember when churches were packed on Sunday with young parents in the pews trying to shush their crying infants. Today such noises are seldom heard in churches, at least in the North,18 because those young parents have become gray-haired grandparents without many potential replacements to follow on. “In the early 2000s,” writes Ross Douthat of the New York Times, “there were almost a million Catholic baptisms in the United States every year. By 2015, that number was down to around 700,000. If that trend continued, there could be as few as 350,000 by the 2030s.”19
At least as important as these demographic changes is the way many Americans now profess their Christian beliefs. In Habits of the Heart, published in 1985, a team of sociologists headed by Robert N. Bellah showed how religion in America had moved from being highly public, as it once was, to becoming private and subjective. To demonstrate that shift, they quoted a young nurse named Sheila Larson:
I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice. . . It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think He would want us to take care of each other.20
Currents of Sheilaism run through the responses of young people today when questioned about religion. A study by the Pew Research Center revealed that one in three 18to 29-year-olds profess no religion.21 Even among those who do, their attachment is tentative at best. In his 2018 book The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher cites a 2005 study that examined the spiritual lives of American teenagers. “What they found,” Dreher writes, “was that in most cases, teenagers adhered to a mushy pseudo religion the researchers deemed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD).” Here is Dreher’s summary of MTD’s apparent credo:
• A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
• God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
• The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself.
• God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to solve a problem.
• Good people go to heaven when they die.22
What to make of all this warm fuzziness? It could mean anything. We can call on God when we need Him and forget about Him when we don’t. We can do whatever makes us feel good about ourselves. And if we’re nice we go to Heaven. Amen. This is not Christianity, it is Sheilaism, and it is compatible with nearly any moral code. In a follow-up study of young adults published in 2011, 61 percent said that they had no moral problem with materialism and consumerism.23 It appears, then, that religious sloppiness has downstream moral effects. It eases the way to moral relativism. “Some people think this is wrong, others think it’s right, so who can say?” As I noted earlier, the question that must always be asked of those who celebrate “liberty” is: Liberty to do what?
The Rosetta Stone for understanding our present moral situation is the concurring opinion of Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy, Sandra Day O’Connor, and David Souter in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). In that case the Court upheld most of Pennsylvania’s abortion regulations (such as spousal notification and a 24-hour waiting period) but also reaffirmed its own 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade that a woman has a constitutional right to abort her child, at least prior to viability and in certain cases beyond it. Like the decision in Roe, the Casey decision was grounded on the “liberty” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Justice Kennedy, who wrote the opinion, explained what he meant by the term: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” What does that have to do with abortion? Well, Kennedy states, some people think that abortion is “an act of violence against innocent human life”—but others don’t! They don’t think a fetus has a human life to be violated. So it’s all a matter of how you define things, and everyone has the right to define terms like “existence” (which itself covers a lot of ground) and “the mystery of human life” any way they like. You can apply the Mystery Principle to other topics besides abortion: gender, for example (you’re female if you say you are), marriage (for the first time in the known history of the world, people of the same sex can be married), and race (you look at that photo of your great-aunt and declare yourself part Cherokee). Everything’s fluid.
Justice Kennedy did try to lay down some “guiding principles” for courts to consider in deciding on the constitutionality of state abortion regulations. “Regulations which do no more than create a structural mechanism by which the State, or the parent or guardian of a minor, may express profound respect for the life of the unborn are permitted ” (My italics.) Kennedy was thus acknowledging that there is a living being—for whose life it is not inappropriate to show “profound respect”—inside the mother or gasping for breath on a warm towel. Yet he also reminds us that some people do not share that perspective. In their view, that being does not deserve respect. That is why they get to end its life.
Is there anything we can do to save this country from its dive into nihilism?
What Is to Be Done?
In The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher, whom I quoted earlier on the mushiness of popular American religion, contends that the only real alternative for serious Christians today is “internal exile.” He agrees with Pope Benedict XVI that “The Western world today lives as though God does not exist,” and he draws inspiration from the other Benedict, St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547 A.D.), who lived at the time when Rome—once the center of the Western civilization—was literally falling apart. In 410, Rome was sacked, burned, and all but emptied by fierce Gothic tribes. Growing up in the ruins of a once-proud empire, Benedict took to the hills, living alone there for three years before joining a monastery and eventually founding twelve more, all based on his austere Benedictine Rule of disciplined spirituality. In The Benedict Option, Dreher contends that serious Christians in America find themselves in the same situation today.
Dreher believes we must accept the fact that in the years to come, “faithful Christians may have to choose between being a good American and being a good Christian.” To attempt to “reclaim our lost influence will be a waste of energy or worse, if the financial or other resources that could have been dedicated to building alternative institutions for the long resistance went instead to making a doomed attempt to hold on to power.” Instead, quoting the Czech playwright and political prisoner Vaclav Havel, Dreher suggests that the real solution is to set up “parallel structures” of community life. Christians need to make the best of the grim times ahead for the West. “We are a minority now, so let’s be a creative one, offering warm, living, light-filled alternatives to a world growing cold, dead, and dark.”24 There is something bracing, something almost romantic, about the idea of serious Christians banding together to form their own polis, based not on mindless, empty Liberty but moral Freedom in a virtuous community. But how do you go about doing this?
Actually, there have been several attempts to do this on American soil through “utopian” societies. America itself, or at least a chunk of it, began as a utopia in New England when the Puritans landed there in 1620 and sought to implement their governor’s dream of a “City upon a Hill.” In the nineteenth century, a number of communal experiments cropped up in various places. In 1825 a Welsh industrialist and social reformer named Robert Owen purchased a town in Indiana named Harmony and, renaming it New Harmony, started a socialist colony. It lasted only two years but inspired a number of more modest civic projects. Another such community, Brook Farm, founded near Boston in the 1840s by a former Unitarian minister, was based in part on the ideals of transcendentalism. It also had a short life but inspired novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived there for a time, to write The Blithedale Romance (1852). Then, of course, there were—and are—the Mormons. After a mob in Illinois murdered their founder Joseph Smith in 1844, they started their trek to the wilds of Utah. Led by Brigham Young, they entered the state on July 24, 1847, and set up their own polis, Salt Lake City, based on the tenets of the Mormon religion. Some today have sought to do what the idealists of the nineteenth century did: form new communities. The best-known of these was founded in 2003 by Tom Monaghan, a multimillionaire who made his fortune as the founder of Domino’s Pizza in 1960. In 2003 he invested $250 million to create the town and university of Ave Maria in Florida, 30 miles east of Naples. The town is built around a gigantic oratory, serving both as church and university chapel. As of 2015 there were 720 homes in the town, though the plan is eventually to build 11,000. Ave Maria University is a Catholic liberal arts institution of higher learning “dedicated to the formation of joyful, intentional followers of Jesus Christ through Word and Sacrament, scholarship and service.”25
The most recent venture along the lines of Ave Maria was still in the planning stage in 2021, but its creators said it would soon be underway in the countryside of Winona, Texas. Called <i>Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”), named after an encyclical by Pope St. John Paul II on the Catholic Church’s moral teaching, its stated purpose is to “protect, preserve and proclaim the truth of the faith given to us by Jesus.” The founders have already purchased 600 acres of land and begun a $22-million capital campaign. Veritatis Splendor has the support of the local bishop, Joseph Strickland. “I see it not as a ‘circling the wagons,’” Bishop Strickland said, “but as a community of support—almost the opposite of the ‘Benedict Option.’”26
In the same year a more modest experiment in communitarianism was underway in Greenville, South Carolina. As of April 2021, 14 new families from 11 different states had moved to Greenville to become parishioners in an already-established parish, Our Lady of the Rosary (OLR). A couple who moved from Minnesota spoke for many: “We made the decision to move our family (grandparents too) across the country where people didn’t apologize for being Catholic.”27
In all these social experiments we see families who have packed up their belongings and travelled many hundreds of miles to relocate to a new community of shared moral/religious beliefs. A bold and commendable move. But whether it is “almost the opposite of the ‘Benedict Option,’” as Bishop Strickland claims, is open to question. He categorized Dreher’s approach as “circling the wagons”—but these faith communities seem to be doing the same. They consist of people of like mind and heart hanging out together. Which is fine, but is it enough? The early Christians did not content themselves simply with gathering together in prayerful union. They carried the good news to others, even to those who didn’t particularly care to hear it. “Woe to me if I preach not the Gospel,” said St. Paul.28 It is this challenge that seems to have been left on the table by those who have chosen “the Benedict Option” or relocated to new faith communities.
Others, therefore, have chosen not to flee but to stay here and fight. Much as Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King did in the 1940s and ’50s, they seek to bring Gospel wisdom to the cause of social reform. Some are taking to the streets, praying in front of abortion clinics or marching on Washington. Others are trying a different but complementary route: In books, essays, and media appearances they have declared war on “establishments,” even conservative ones, that fail to challenge the moral decadence of the West.
To view the field of battle we must understand how Left and Right have crisscrossed each other in recent years. Leftists, who once championed civil liberties, are now given to cancel-culturing opinions they don’t like, while many on the Right, in defending those opinions, are starting to sound like Clarence Darrow in 1925 defending the right to teach evolution. Defending liberty can be a noble profession, but those who practice it should always be prepared to answer the question we have posed more than once in this essay: Liberty to do what? Liberty to bring all souls to Heaven? Liberty to smoke marijuana? Liberty to refuse a vaccination?
At some point we must start looking at liberty’s object: What is it that needs to be protected, and why does it deserve protection? When we accept that burden, we start crossing the line from liberty—the right to say or do something—to freedom, the right to live in a decent, virtuous society. We have moved from process to substance, and when we make that step, we can’t turn back. We have to be prepared to say that certain things (practices, performances, lifestyles) are good, and should be promoted, while others are bad, and should be discouraged or banned.
In the past, social liberals used to be chary about entering that field of controversy because America’s Judeo-Christian values did not jibe very well with some of theirs, so they would lose the fight for legitimacy. But today, as one keen observer has noted, “The left’s values prevail in universities, public schools, newsrooms, corporate boardrooms, cultural institutions, government agencies, and lately the U.S. military.”29 The Left is no longer hesitant to shout its support for abortion, gay marriage, pornographic entertainment, marijuana, and transgenderism. And contrary views are not welcomed.
How should conservatives resist these tidal forces? It depends on whom you ask. For many conservatives the answer would be to step up to the liberals and say: “We demand the right to reply, and we’ll take you to court if you don’t allow it.” Those who focus on that strategy are sometimes called “procedural” conservatives because of their emphasis on individual autonomy and unrestricted debate as the best means of beating the opposition. In line with the dual categories in this essay, let us call them liberty conservatives. On the other side are freedom conservatives, not content with opening avenues of debate but who also take sides in the debates, particularly the debate over how we ought to live together as a free people.
A running debate between the two brands of conservatism broke out in the March 2019 edition of First Things, a culturally conservative journal. Entitled “Against the Dead Consensus” and signed by fifteen writers, it laid down its case against liberty conservatism. While conceding that it had “played a heroic role in defeating Communism in the last century,” it “too often tracked the same lodestar liberalism did—namely individual autonomy.” It paid “lip service” to moral values.
But it failed to retard, much less reverse, the eclipse of permanent truths, family stability, communal solidarity, and much else. It surrendered to the pornification of daily life, to the culture of death, to the cult of competitiveness. It too often bowed to a poisonous and censorious multiculturalism.30
Much of the rancor in the piece was directed at what its authors saw as the elite style of liberals, their scorn for middle class values, and their attraction to countercultural fashions. In contrast, the authors sought to create a policy to meet “the messy demands of authentic human attachments: faith, family, and the political community.”31 Outside its immediate core of supporters, the piece did not cause much of a stir, so one of its signers, Sohrab Ahmari, turned up the volume two months later in his own First Things article. This one got personal: “Against David French-ism.”
Ahmari, 34 years old, was until recently the op-ed editor of the New York Post. He was born in Iran to nominal Muslim parents and came to the U.S. as a teenager. Starting out as an agnostic before trying out a variety of faiths and ideologies, he converted to Catholicism at 31 and is married with two children. The fact that he has two small children ties into his criticism of liberty conservatism, personified by David French.
French is the senior editor of The Dispatch and a former writer for the National Review. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he has spent much of his career in courts defending religious rights. He is a former major in the U.S. Army Reserve and was deployed in Iraq in 2007 as a squadron Judge Advocate, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star.
What prompted Ahmari’s attack on David French had nothing directly to do with French. It was a Facebook ad for a “Drag Queen Story Hour” at the Sacramento Public Library. Aimed at children starting at the age of three, it features men who dress up as women to promote “gender diversity” and “self-love” by providing, it says in its brochure, “glamorous, positive and unabashedly queer role models.” The performance started in San Francisco in 2005 and, endorsed by the American Library Association, it now has 35 chapters in the U.S. and at least one in the U.K. (where the show includes a lesson in twerking). Ahmari could not imagine what right anyone had to perform like this in front of small children, children like his own. “This is demonic,” he tweeted. “To hell with liberal order. Sometimes reactionary politics are the only salutary path.”
David French, who is also a father, is a keeper of the liberal order. He calls himself a “classical liberal.” A deeply religious Protestant, he nevertheless insists on “viewpoint neutrality” when it comes to speech activity, meaning that government can’t ban a speech activity simply because somebody doesn’t like its viewpoint. This is straight out of the John Stuart Mill playbook, putting French in the crosshairs of anyone who rejects Millian libertarianism. That would be Sohrab Ahmari.
Ahmari’s major premise, guiding everything in politics he writes about, is that America is in the midst of a “cultural civil war.” For him, there is no “polite, David French-ian way around it.” Freedom conservatives, Ahmari believes, need “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” In Ahmari’s view, this aggressiveness is “thoroughly alien to French” because he believes in “neutral zones that should, in theory, accommodate both traditional Christianity and the libertine ways and paganized ideology of the other side.” His conclusion: All French is left with is his plea that traditional Christians should be allowed to rent spaces “in which to practice and preach what they sincerely believe,” a weak response at a time when “the overall balance of forces has tilted inexorably away from us.”
The very next day French replied in a National Review article, charging that “Ahmari flat-out misrepresents my approach to politics and my role in key public controversies.” French spent much of his article describing his long service in defending conservative institutions while promoting “fundamentally Christian and Burkean conservative principles.” He was thus claiming to be a champion of both the substance of Aristotelian-Christian thought and the libertarian process à la Mill. “It’s not one or the other. It’s both.”32
The Ahmari-French debate was not confined to the printed page; it migrated to the public stage in two in-person debates, one at Catholic University of America on September 9, 2019, the second eight days later at Notre Dame University. Both were lively, but it was the first one, reviewed here, that probed their deepest differences. The moderator, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, started off by asking Ahmari an obvious question: What is David French-ism? To which Ahmari answered, “It is a program for Christian retreat from the public square.” Douthat then asked French, “Do you recognize that pithy description?” French did not. In fact, he said, his approach was not just to maintain but to extend Christian presence in the public square. “I’ve been absolutely on the ground . . . been aggressively and offensively—but not offensively [sic]—extending the Christian witness in many of the most hostile areas of the United States.”
Invited by Douthat to reply, Ahmari prefaced his remarks by saying that he didn’t want to overdo the noun “French-ism” (French shouted, “Too late! Too late!”—the first of his many interruptions), yet he felt the need to contrast his reaction with French’s to the Drag Queen Story Hour. “If I’m not mistaken, David, I think you kind of pooh-poohed the dangers of a performance that has thirty-five chapters in this country.” For Ahmari, a performance like this “in a space interacting with children”—he would have no objection to it in the gay bar down the street from his apartment—amounted to cultural aggression. French had a very different take: “It’s a product of a free nation . . . Drag Queen Story Hour is one of the least significant problems in our nation.”
Anyway, he added, even if it were, what are you going to do about it? This is the toughest challenge Ahmari faces. How can you shut down a performance protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution and bolstered by at least fifty years of Supreme Court precedents? Ahmari knows that an outright ban would not survive judicial scrutiny, but measures short of it could be used, such as holding congressional hearings “on what’s happening in our libraries,” where conservative senators like Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton could “make the head of the Modern Library Association or whatever sweat.” Ahmari’s point is that on some issues government can—and should—play an activist role in promoting virtue and fighting immorality. A conservative on moral issues, Ahmari is a populist on the reach of government. Affluent, well-educated people have their lawyers and their friends in high places to protect themselves against threats to their way of life. Lacking these weapons, Ahmari says, the common people need government to stick up for them.
French then asked Ahmari what he thought of “viewpoint neutrality,” which, as noted earlier, means that government can’t ban or limit a speech activity just because some people don’t like its viewpoint. This, “one of the bedrocks of our system” as French called it, was the bait for his trap. “So,” French inquired, “would you undermine viewpoint neutrality in First Amendment jurisprudence?” Without hesitating, Ahmari replied: “Yeah—I would.” French then erupted: “That’s a disaster, y’all. . . That’s not offensive, that’s stupid!”
And on that cordial note the debate effectively ended.
Conclusion: Why Not Both?
Two words, “freedom” and “liberty,” are often used interchangeably. In this essay I have given them very different meanings. “Liberty” is the easy one to define because we all associate it with “rights,” notably “the right to do what you please.” We may soften the formulation by adding, “as long as you don’t harm others in the doing of it,” but the core of it is self-oriented. It is the language of individualism.
“Freedom” is harder to define. It has moral connotations that place limits on what we are allowed to do. Why, then, call it “freedom”? Aristotle’s teleology helps us understand. A human being is a very special animal, one who speaks (not just grunts, barks, or whinnies) and lives in a community (not a herd). What is the end, the telos, of a human being? It is to live happily with other human beings in a speaking community. It is not a momentary high but a settled state of fulfillment proper alone to humans. We are most free, then, when we are able to hit that virtuous bull’s-eye toward which our very nature is oriented. We are least free when we give ourselves over to drugs, drunkenness, pornography, and the other social vices that drag us down from our humanity. We pity people in these situations because we know that they are not free; they are slaves.
America was “conceived in liberty,” Abraham Lincoln reminded us in his Gettysburg Address. As I noted earlier, government has had a comparatively light touch in America. Socialism is so unpopular here that even de facto socialists run away from the term, preferring to be called “progressives.” A motto of uncertain origin, “That government is best which governs least,” has a distinctly American ring. One famous American, Henry David Thoreau, went it one better by saying, “That government is best which governs not at all.”
All of which (except for Thoreau’s exaggeration) is fine. In this essay I have gone to some length to identify liberty as the perennial—and irreplaceable— American ideal, the right, as General Eisenhower said, “to live as you please, provided you don’t get in someone’s hair.” But here again comes that question: Liberty to do what? The “what” used to be negotiated largely at the level of “civil society,” the non-governmental community of interests and morals. Government did not need to play much of a role because the mores of society did most of the work. Those moral lessons were taught in church, of course, but also in the home and school. Even children’s literature and entertainment reflected those mores. Historically, in the West at least, they were deeply informed by Judeo-Christianity. Even the non-religious were influenced by its moral codes. Today, when those social mores are coming under increasing challenge, some who embrace them are trying out different ways of spreading the word that we can only be truly free by striving toward the telos, the end to which our human nature is oriented: a life of speaking and acting together in a vital community. This is a Freedom agenda because it tells us what a life of freedom should be like. It conforms with what Eisenhower called “the dignity of the human soul.” But how to spread that news? For Rod Dreher, as we have seen, direct involvement in the current political system is a “waste of energy.” His “Benedict Option” is to build “alternative institutions” or “parallel structures,” much as St. Benedict did in the sixth century amid the ruins of the Roman Empire. Dreher does not clearly spell out how these “institutions” could be set up and whether their members could—or should—avoid the current political battles. Much is at stake in these battles; they and their families could be adversely affected by the outcome. Don’t cultural conservatives need to stay where they are and fight? The same question could be put to those who relocate to locations congenial to their faith and morality, such as Ave Maria in Florida or Veritatis Splendor in Texas. Even as they relocate, the conflicts will continue, and being AWOL for the luxury of not having “to apologize for being Catholic” doesn’t help the cause of Freedom. So, we come to the third way of dealing with moral decadence: stay here and fight it.
This is a real fight, with real enemies. Abortion has killed more than sixty million children since Roe v. Wade in 1973. Hard-core pornography is a few clicks away from any child with a cell phone. Recreational marijuana is already legal in seventeen states and the number is expected to grow as sales provide much-needed state revenues. Gender is now considered to be “assigned” at birth, so it can be “reassigned” later by request. Physician-assisted suicide is available in nine states and the District of Columbia, and court cases are pending on whether druggists can be forced to fill death prescriptions. And then there are the “Drag Queen Story Hours” in 35 American libraries. All of this is protected by powerful, well-financed lobbies and their supporters in government and the press.
These, then, are the enemies of Freedom. They must be fought. But here is the question: While fighting them do we also need to fight some of our friends? David French is our friend. He loves America and has spent time in its military service. He is also a devout Christian, has brought lawsuits to defend the civil liberties of Christians, and he hates pornography. But French is a libertarian; he fights the enemy with a weapon perfected by John Stuart Mill: If x and y are opposed on an issue, they must have approximately equal time to present their arguments. The state’s main role is to enforce that rule. But it must not enquire into the substance of either argument. This, called “viewpoint neutrality,” is the hill on which David French is willing to die. Sohrab Ahmari, on the other hand, wants us to inquire into the substance, the “whatness” of each side, decide which one is the good one, and support it. The public is not just a referee; it is the chief player in a great moral drama.
The two conservative arguments thus seem to be irresolvable. But are they? At one point in the debate both seemed to like the moderator’s suggestion that the two positions didn’t have to be “either/or,” but could be “both/and.” Neither followed up on that suggestion, but perhaps there is something to it. Ahmari, at least, would not rule out the tactical use of French’s weaponry, such as demanding equal time in a debate or objecting to some ruling by the chair. Why not? In warfare you use any weapon that comes to hand. But presumably he would make sure that the thrust of his case didn’t depart too far from the underlying moral binary: This is good and that is evil.
1. David Hackett Fischer, Liberty and Freedom (Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 10.
2. Ibid., p. 595.
3. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 27.
4. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. David Ross (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 13.
5. Aristotle, Politics, Reeve trans. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1998), p. 5.
6. Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, trans. David Ross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 16-17.
7. Ibid., p. 154.
8. Ibid., pp. 155, 156.
9. Ibid., p. 156.
10. David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions (New Haven: Yale University Press), pp. 24-25.
11. Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (South Bend: Notre Dame Press, 1956), p. 308.
12. Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven and London: Yale University Press), p. 100.
13. Bruce D. Marshall, “No Liberal Home,” First Things, August/September 2019, p. 40. O. Carter Snead,
What It Means to be Human (Harvard, 2020), p. 180.
14. Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (Penguin Books, 1961), p. 91.
15. Pierre Manent, Natural Law and Human Rights (Notre Dame Press, 2020), p. 36.
16. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (Arlington Heights, Ill.: Arlington Publishing Co., 1947), pp. 18, 40, 49, 50.
17. John Adams, “To the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts, 11 October, 1799.” /George Washington voiced a similar view in his Farewell Address: “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” George Washington: A Collection (Liberty Classics, 1988), p. 521.
18. As I will note shortly, there are some hopeful signs of religious revival in Southern states such as Florida, South Carolina, and Texas.
19. Ross Douthat, “Catholic Ideas and Catholic Realities,” First Things, August/September 2021, p. 35.
20. Robert H. Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (University of California Press, 1996), p. 221.
21. Cited by Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, p. 9.
22. Quoted in Dreher, pp. 10-11.
24. Dreher, pp. 50, 89, 93, 99.
25. Patricia Borns, “Ave Maria Diversifies as Home Sales Soars,” News-Press, USA Today Network, November 5, 2015.
26. Kathy Schiffer, “Massive Catholic Center Planned for East Texas,” National Catholic Register, February 27, 2021.
27. Kathy Schiffer, “Relocatiō: Why These Families Moved Across the Country to Live in a Catholic Community,” Church POP, May 17, 2021.
28. 1 Corinthians 9:16.
29. Barton Swaim, “Long on Platitudes, Short on Self-Awareness,” Wall Street Journal, August 21-22, 2021, p. C9.
30. “Against the Dead Consensus,” First Things, March 21, 2019, pp. 1-2.
32. David French, “What Sohrab Ahmari Gets Wrong,” National Review, May 30, 2019, p. 5.