Religion, Culture and Law in Free Societies

Among those who champion and want to live in free societies there are people of widely different convictions on many issues. They may indeed share but one conviction among them. This is that the law's task is to defend our individual rights to live as we choose so no one is authorized to make us live differently. Obviously, living as we choose to live means doing so where we are in charge-'in our homes, businesses, or clubs, and not in the dominion of others.

Sticking to this conviction is of course often hard. Sure, when others differ with you only on what their favorite color or ice cream happens to be, there is rarely any fuss--although when neighbors paint their homes in a color you hate, you may be tempted to intervene. If you love liberty, however, you will not. But suppose your neighbors or fellow citizens embrace a way of life that is by your convictions morally wrong. Suppose they eat meat and you are a vegetarian. Suppose they do not baptize their kids whereas you believe doing it is one of the most important parts of being a good parent. What about when others drink and you believe that to be vile, or they engage in premarital sex and you "know" it's a sin to do so?

For those who champion a free society these are very tough challenges. But lovers of liberty know, also, that there are other ways besides politics and law enforcement by which to bring about a change of heart, mind and conduct in others. Indeed, many of them know that bringing about changes in human behavior by means of the use of threat of physical force is out and out inhuman-'it negates one of the greatest principles of civilization, namely, that other persons must be approached peacefully when it comes to trying to change them. We must persuade and convince, not coerce them. That is how we acknowledge the humanity of even the most remote stranger. If we resort to force, if we call in the vice squad or some other legal officer, we have abandoned the civilized approach to human relationships. We may only resort to force in rebuffing other people's first use of force, not at any other time.

This is one reason that the recent controversy of gay marriages is so important and must be dealt with properly, not impatiently, not with anger and intolerance. Whether gays ought to marry or not is not the most important matter. What is far more important is whether other people may force them to refrain from marrying. When courts have opened the door to gays marrying, they simply affirmed the freedom of gays, put it side by side the freedom of everyone else. No one is required to like or approve of it when gays marry. Certainly, no one is forced to enter into such unions. So, to try to resist or ban such unions is clearly not a matter of defending one's right to liberty. It is to impose a code of personal conduct on others who do not agree with it.

Lovers of liberty know that some things are right for people to do, some things wrong, even as they know that individual differences are vital to such issues. They also know that whatever is right and wrong, people are very attached to their beliefs about the matter and often proceed whatever others think of it. Yet, unless what others do invades a person's own sphere of liberty, the law must stay out of it. That is what freedom means--that is, also, why America, which has a strong tradition of individual liberty, has been a good host to so many people of vastly difference backgrounds and convictions. What they realize, too, is that this mixture of folks with such differences can only co-exist in peace if basic individual rights are respected and protected for everyone. This is one way a free country differs from an unfree one--in the former one can experiment with widely different types of community life, so long as people are free to join and leave, whereas in the latter one size must fit everyone.

This is one reason that even those with strong convictions about how others ought to live do best if they do not urge the imposition of such convictions but stick to persuasion and advocacy.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.