Freedom and Responsibility
The missing ingredient in American Liberalism is an emphasis on responsibility, according to Dr. Peter J. Van Hook, the presenter at the November meeting of Humanists of Utah. Dr. Van Hook, spoke to the question of “Why Can’t We Agree on Anything Anymore?” Van Hook explored briefly the Liberal philosophy of John Locke and our nation’s founders, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, etc., which put a premium on the freedom of the individual, a freedom from both secular and theistic authoritarianism. He then explored the communitarian agenda of Amitai Etzioni that maintains individual freedom must be tempered with the good of the community.
“Liberalism, with its definition of individual rights, was an attempt to define some way of living in society over against the authoritarianism of the monarchies of Locke’s day. When you get to the colonies, you have this same strain of Liberalism, that is, we are going to form a country that is not going to be authoritarian in character, it’s not going to have a monarch. Instead we are going to create a government that is bounded. I think that is an important term. Sometimes we talk about the separation of powers as those groups having power over against the other groups, the legislative, the judicial, the executive. Rather, one really needs to talk about bounded power. What it creates is a system that doesn’t work very quickly…I would offer to you tonight that it does work rather well. But you have to give it time and in the modern television age that’s the one thing we do not seem to have very much of.
“American society in the modern age has become a paragon of individualism. It’s what I would term, in its political life, a decayed Liberalism…What we have now is a society in which people seem to know their rights and privileges but they don’t seem to know their responsibilities.
“I submit that one of the things that excited so many people about Colin Powell is that they had a sense that he might be for something, and in his own way, a Liberal. And for the American ear that is still a very attractive thing.”
Dr. Van Hook explained that Etzioni’s theory of communitarianism, which recommends giving up some individual rights for the good of the community, sounds good in theory but in practice leads to authoritarianism. He cited the history of Germany in the 1920s and 30s as a classic example of the insidiousness of communitarianism. Van Hook said the better solution is that recommended by Harvard Philosopher John Rawl. In his major work, A Theory of Justice, “Rawl defines justice as fairness. This is something quite new in political philosophy; to simply say that to be just, that is to make things right, is simply to be fair, to have a broad notion of what the good is. He puts forword two principles of justice which are formed in an initial position of equality of persons. He says each person has an equal right to the most extensive scheme of basic liberties compatible, and this is the hitch, compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all.”
A philosophical theory referring to cultural membership may offer a fairness solution, according to Van Hook. “What that allows us to do then is to say, from a Liberal perspective, that a group may pursue its collective life plan without being a threat or being threatened by the larger American liberal society. This holds out some promise for the kinds of (group) fights we are having now.
“What I’m putting forward tonight is an energetic, indeed an athletic, Liberalism which is for the rights of individuals while recognizing the distinctive character of certain communities of persons. How this is to be worked out in practice is, in my mind, entirely unclear. But we must begin.”
Cultural Diversity for High School Students
I was invited by Professor Ed Firmage to participate in his West High School series on Cultural Diversity October 23, 1995. The University of Utah Professor of Law initiated the forum to heighten the interest of high school students in the great diversity of cultural belief systems in this nation. It was an honor for me to speak about humanism to approximately 200 students.
I explained that 20th Century humanism is a movement to preserve the ideals of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. These two periods of western history saw humans freed from the tyrannies of both governments and religions. The spokesmen for these two periods renewed public interest in the democracy of the Golden Age of the Greeks and the Romans. They spoke out against the divine right of sovereigns and the kingly rights of the divine that had enslaved the human mind for a thousand years from the fall of the Roman Empire about 400AD to the Renaissance of the fourteenth century.
The first great document to declare this revolutionary ideal was the Magna Carta that called upon the king of England to halt the secular and religious tyranny and give the citizens the right to self government. This movement gradually replaced ecclesiastical control with secular control. It inspired growing respect for human dignity that eventually led to the Renaissance and over many years generated such great minds as Francis Bacon, Copernicus, Galileo and Newton.
The Renaissance was followed by the Enlightenment, a time of increasing optimism led by such giant intellects as David Hume, Voltaire, Jefferson and Jackson. These individuals stimulated the questioning of superstition and deplored imposed ignorance. Their thinking led to the next great humanist document, the Declaration of Independence, fueled our revolution against British rule, and supported the French revolution against tyranny. The third humanist document was the US Constitution, then came the Bill of Rights and the great French document of humanism, the Rights of Man.
Modern humanism continues to extol the virtues of individualism, freedom, human dignity, equality and the separation of religion and government. Humanists urge a constant vigil to keep both government and religion from re-imposing their tyranny over the human mind.
My remarks received a strong ovation and several students talked with me after class requesting information about humanism. It was an encouraging experience.
Something to Think About
If we could at this very moment shrink the earth’s population to a village of precisely 100 leaving all of the existing human ratios the same, it would look like this:
- 57 Asians
- 21 Europeans
- 14 North and South Americans
- 8 Africans
- 70 would be non-white
- 30 would be Christian
- 70 would be illiterate
- 50 would suffer from malnutrition
- 80 would live in substandard housing
- 1 would have a university education
50% of the world’s wealth would be in the hands of only 6 people–and all 6 would be US citizens
When considering our world from such an incredibly compressed perspective, the need for both tolerance and understanding becomes glaringly apparent.
The Meaning of Tolerance
Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island and a resolute defender of religious liberty, was born of middle class parents in London in about 1603. He grew up in the Church of England, the most obvious option, since all over England it was the legally establish church, the official church, and the national church. It was a time when men and women were still being sent to the Tower of London for disobeying the crown; when dissenters were either driven from the kingdom, or burned at the stake.
As persecution and punishment intensified, many people left England and settled in the American colonies. Among these “Puritans” as they were called, were Roger and Mary Williams who arrived in 1631. Unlike other Puritans who wished to “reform” the corrupted Church of England, Williams had to separate himself completely, believing “it was not possible nor honorable to pledge loyalty to an institution that one intended to remake. My conscience was persuaded against the national church and ceremonies.”
Williams not only challenged other colonists who had not cut themselves cleanly from England’s church, he even questioned the right of the civil magistrates to enforce the purely religious rules. He believed in a total separation of powers between the church and civil government. He believed the Law of Moses belonged strictly to the realm of religion, not of civil authority, that the religious laws were matters for “individual conscience” not for the sheriff.
The Puritans in Boston disagreed with Williams and were agitated by his thoughts. They believed both civil and ecclesiastical government must rely upon a firm partnership to make Massachusetts work. Williams persisted in his liberal views believing that nations should not compel the religion of its people. He made a distinction between “Christendom” and “Christianity” the former being the polluting mixture of politics and religion, and the latter being a thirsting after righteousness. “Demanding that men accept a certain religion was” said Williams, “like requiring an unwilling spouse to enter into a forced bed.” In a book published in England, he called the alliance of church and state, “a bloody tenent of persecution.” Williams proclaimed the essential difference between the church and the state must never be confounded or muddled. When God’s people open “a gap in the hedge or ‘wall of separation’ between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the World, God hath ever broke down the wall itself and made his Garden a Wilderness, as at this day.” The only way to set things right was to carefully clean out the church garden and rebuild that wall around it. Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635 for having “erroneous and very dangerous” opinions.
History confirms the fact that establishing a church within civil government leads to unrighteous dominion, and promotes feelings of arrogance and superiority from the clergy (and sometimes its church members) because they not only set themselves up as judges of human conscience but they assume the power to set their own moral agendas, and determine which religions are worthy of tolerating, and those which are not. To Roger Williams, “mere toleration” was not a worthy goal, only total “freedom of conscience” would suffice, and it had to be extended to all consciences, “Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Antichristian.” He believed “true civility and Christianity may both flourish” in that state or kingdom which had the courage to guarantee liberty to “diverse and contrary consciences.” In other words, Williams believed both the church and the state could not only survive separately, but flourish as well, so long as every person could believe as their conscience dictated.
Forty-five years later, John Locke gave the world a nudge along its path toward freedom when he published his Letter on Toleration. His essay influenced the passage of England’s Toleration Act of 1689 which finally ended the persecution of Protestant dissenters. However, the Act only achieved partial “liberty of conscience” because the established church still exercised its power; the Act did not apply to Catholics, Unitarians, or Atheists, and it excluded dissenters from holding political office.
During the colonial period in Virginia, and up until the Constitution and Bill of Rights were adopted, tolerance was still defined by the dominant faith; for example: 1) The Episcopal church was the established church, and it tolerated the existence of a few other religions 2) Laws were established requiring church attendance 3) Citizens were punished for holding certain beliefs contrary to the Episcopal belief 4) Baptist preachers were stoned and jailed for preaching and publishing their religious sentiments 5) Forced tithes were collected by the civil powers, and 6) Males were required to take oaths of loyalty to various government officials. (Encyclopedia Britannica)
James Madison, author or our Constitution, was appalled by the injustices he observed in Virginia and felt that religious tolerance was only the “half way point on the road to freedom,” that it was an unacceptable principle for civil government to adopt because “there existed an assumption of superiority of the established sect.” One church would assume special privileges, which would result in favoritism at the expense of others. Madison argued (as did Roger Williams) that religion was totally outside the scope of civil authority, and a law compelling people to support it financially was a violation of the constitutional guarantee of “freedom of conscience.” He termed tax support “an establishment of religion and a violation of the individual taxpayer’s religious liberty.” As a result, he was instrumental in constructing the wording in the First Amendment, which prevents government from establishing religion. (William and Mary Quarterly, January 1951)
Obviously, the meaning of religious tolerance has evolved. The concept began as an attempt to end religious persecution and punishment by the national church, and today is thought of mainly as an attitude which “allows” some sort of “difference from the established standard.” This implies there still remains a superior-inferior relationship, and that the superior entity in the relationship is in control. It sets the rules for “community standards” and is many times made up of people in the dominant religion in a town or city.
So how far have we really come in terms of tolerance? We’re not burning people at the stake anymore, but those who are “different” are still being psychologically banished if they don’t go along with the status quo. Almost every day we read or hear about murders, acts of violence, or ostracism perpetuated on others because of race, religion, sex, political affiliation, or AIDS. In fact, AIDS has become an American object lesson in intolerance. “Children with AIDS have had school doors barred. Parents of such children have watched their homes burn. Women with AIDS are routinely seen, in even the nicest company, as ‘dirty women.’ Men with AIDS have died by the hundreds of thousands, and their only memorial so far is a traveling quilt they no longer need to stay warm.” (Mary Fisher, USA Weekend, 11-19-95)
And, Religious Intolerance is still being practiced in some cities under the guise of “community standards.” For example, Provo Mayor George Stewart has single-handedly shut down the public swimming pool on Sunday claiming “community standards” dictate his decision. He, however, left the public golf course open on Sunday because of behind-the-scenes, influential arm-twisting. We can only assume that “money talks,” and minorities without that kind of clout still suffer from discrimination and persecution.
It’s interesting to note that the United Nations has declared 1995 as the Year for Tolerance. Their definition is as follows: “Tolerance on the part of each and every one means an attitude devoid of arrogance in relations between the generations, the sexes, individuals and communities, and between the human race and nature.”
But its one thing to define tolerance as an attitude “devoid of arrogance,” but quite another to practice it. Despite our brilliance and capacity for setting lofty ideals, we fall short of reaching them because no matter how liberal we are, we still remain creatures of prejudice, temper, and the irrational. We still appraise the environment according to our own experience and cultural background. So, should we give up on the word tolerance and choose another? Or do we keep refining its definition to mean something more open-minded? Changing attitudes and behaviors is a slow and sometimes arduous process, yet the difficulty of the task must not be a reason to keep from trying. People have the capacity to change if they want to, and it’s a never-ending process. It takes becoming aware of their own ethnocentric behaviors and feelings. It also takes education, critical reflection, and effort. The results could be liberating for both individuals and societies.
Is America on the Wrong Track?
Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report
The November Utah Humanist study group discussion focused on the BYU commencement address given by James Q. Wilson, UCLA professor of political science and author of The Moral Sense.
He said, “The world I entered in 1952 was very different from the one you are entering in 1994. By almost any objective measure, it was a less just, more troubled world…
“And yet most Americans felt good about their country. Opinion polls showed that the great majority…had confidence in the leaders of government, business, and other institutions…young Americans expected that their lives would be better than those of their parents, and their children’s lives would be better than theirs…
“…we today are an unhappy people who have lost confidence in our political, business, religious, and other leaders, who believe that this nation is on the wrong track, who think that the federal government creates more problems than it solves, and who fear that future generations will be worse off than present ones…
“The reason, I think is that we have come to believe that the American Dreams works for Americans but not for America. The American Dream is this: if you get an education and work hard, you will improve your lot…But when Americans look, not at their own lives, but at America, they see a nation besieged by crime, drug abuse, illegitimate births, incessant public vulgarity, and innumerable lawsuits…
“How can this be? We did as we were told; we improved our lot. But somehow what worked for most individuals did not work for the nation as a whole. We prospered; our cities deteriorated. We raised our children to be decent citizens; some other children joined armed gangs…during the four decades since I graduated from college, the rate of violent crime has increased sevenfold…The divorce rate has more than doubled…the teen-age suicide rate has more than tripled.
“These unhappy trends did not occur because we were unwilling to spend money to prevent them. The amount of government money spent on the poor…increased seven-fold between 1960 and 1990 in constant dollars. Private charitable giving…increased more than three-fold…the extra money…did not purchase what we hoped it would–human happiness…
“But much of this problem is world-wide. Crime, although not violent crime, has been increasing rapidly in almost every industrial nation…
“We are seeing all about us in the entire Western world the working out of the defining experience of the West, the Enlightenment…that extraordinary period in the 18th century when man was emancipated from old tyrannies–from dead custom, hereditary monarchs, religious persecution, and ancient superstitions. It is the period that gave us science and human rights, that attacked human slavery and political absolutism, that made possible capitalism and progress…
“James Madison said that ‘republican government presupposes the existence of sufficient virtue among men for self-government’…But what if virtue would be lacking?…Nowhere did the Constitution authorize Washington to purchase virtue…
“The great clash of cultures that now afflicts the world is in no small measure…driven by the conviction of the Islamic world of the Middle East and much of the Confucian world of the Far East that the Western Enlightenment and the…culture that it spawned, are morally bankrupt…no less critical of the West are such places as Singapore that have a secular state, welcome technology and capitalism, and allow women to play a public role but insist that government must be the moral master of its people…Some people [including university intellectuals], challenge the legitimacy of Western culture and the…enlightenment here [in its heartland].
“Let me be clear: I take my place unhesitatingly with the West…our achievements in human dignity, personal freedom, and economic progress dwarf anything that has been accomplished by our rivals save perhaps in a few small city-states…The core value of the American Dream–that…every individual is responsible for what he or she does–will prevail because it will prove to be so useful and so consistent with everyday human existence.
“You can make a difference in all of the ways that are so important. The employee who gives an honest day’s work;…The craftsman who builds each house as if he were going to live in it…the neighbors who join together to patrol a neighborhood threatened by drug dealers…–these are the heroes of everyday live. May you join their ranks.”