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Monday, November 12, 2012

An Argument for Limited Freedom and the Authority of Law

A short time ago, I saw some postings on a social media site concerning freedom and rights in the United States, and it deeply alarmed me.  Since today is Veteran's Day (observed) in this country, it seemed like a good time to talk about this. It also furthers my mission with this blog to sort out bad arguments for the edification of others.

So, to begin, I'll summarize what was said. This individual postulated that freedom meant that no one had a right to tell him what to do, and that he should have a right to do whatever he wanted, especially with his own body.  When another individual attempted to argue with him, he added that the law was, in effect, trying to impose another person's Christian values on him, which he didn't think was fair.  (I would have given you a direct quote, but this seemed like a clearer and cleaner way to present what was said, without naming names or publishing profanity.)

So, this argument boils down to three main points of contention, if I understand correctly: (1) Does political freedom mean that we have a right to do whatever we want? (2) Are there circumstances where the law should not apply to us because the decision arguably does not affect others? and (3) Do law making bodies, have a right, in all fairness, to impose their values upon others under the law?

I will try to answer each of these subjects carefully and reasonably, although I cannot be unbiased.  I welcome you to keep reading, even if you don't fully agree with me, and hope you will leave me a comment if I missed something important.

Freedom: Limited or Unlimited?

Is is true that freedom really means that we have a right to do whatever we want?

The Christian perspective says that God, being the Creator and Ruler of the Universe, has the right to demand an answer for everything we do.  He also has a right to impose punishment on us when we do what He doesn't approve, and we do not have a choice but to accept this punishment (Psalm 11:4-7).  That doesn't imply unlimited freedom on our part; it is only freedom within the boundaries He has set (Psalm 16:5,6).

God is the only one with the possibility of unlimited freedom, and yet He has imposed limits on Himself, the first being His decision to give each one of us free will.  Although God could take over our bodies and force us to do things His way, He chose not to allow that as a possibility.  Other similar limits include His rule against allowing unredeemed sin in His presence (Psalm 15), and accepting anything less serious than blood as atonement for sin (Genesis 4: 3-7).  He takes these rules pretty seriously, because His strict adherence to them ultimately sent His Son to the cross as atonement for sin (Philippians 2: 6-8).

From the secular perspective, I could argue that one person's freedom cannot supersede or take away from the freedoms enjoyed by others, and thus the general population's freedom limits the freedoms of the individual.  Thus, it should not be legal for one person to pilfer another person's belongings at will, because this infringes on the other individual's freedom to own and enjoy personal property (this definition creates a need for anti-theft laws).  Similarly, one individual's enjoyment of personal property should not prevent another individual's enjoyment of his or her personal property (thus creating a need for zoning laws, noise ordinances, waste disposal and human burial laws, etc.).  These situations tend to require a whole lot of specifics to close loopholes, however, which can weaken this argument over time.

To summarize, this point, I would have to say that the open-ended claim that freedom is unlimited is false and unsupportable.  It must be limited, or it will lead to anarchy and the destruction of general freedom while allowing only a few individuals to experience something like freedom.  How it is handled (from a Christian or secular perspective) may determine who winds up on top or how many enjoy this limited freedom.

Unlimited Freedom Where Others Are Not Affected

The next step in the argument is that sometimes, unlimited freedom does not affect others, and in those cases, the law should not intrude.  I can answer this one from both the Biblical and the secular perspectives as well.

Christians do not limit the definition of sin to only things which affect others.  Ultimately, sin is a personal transgression against laws that stand between the individual and God Himself (Psalm 51:4).  That means that personal decisions, such as the decision to deny the Lordship of Christ (Psalm 2), are also defined as sins, which God can judge.  By extension, the political viewpoint of Christianity says that individual sins are just as prosecutable as sins in public, through a purity of law that applies to the individual just as much as it does to the general public.

The secular arguments here draw upon circumstantial proofs, attempting to establish generalizable absolutes from these specific situations.  It could be argued from the secular perspective that no decision affects only one individual, and therefore there will always be ramifications and changes in the course of history that will determine whether a thing should be allowed by law.  Unfortunately, a lot of those proofs are conjecture and sometimes don't apply to all instances.  There is also the argument that sometimes the law has the right to protect individuals from themselves.  An example of this is the legal process of getting power of attorney over a very ill patient, such as an individual with Alzheimer's Disease.  This would legally prevent a person from leaving a building, rejecting medication, or doing physical injury to himself or herself, even though these decisions would have affected only this one individual's body.

The Christian argument, in summary, is basically saying that the moral law imposed by God over all people individually and collectively is a model for political law, which should also see no boundaries or differences between prosecuting in macrocosm and prosecuting  in microcosm. Meanwhile, the secular argument, which presumes there is no absolute standard, attempts to support its legal authority with anecdotes.  Attempts to apply a judgement in microcosm to a general population this way requires many caveats and leaves loopholes, which can eventually erode the power of the law.

Law's Imposition of Values on Others

This leads to the third and final argument concerning freedom.  Do lawmaking bodies have a right to impose their values on others through law?  This is a tricky question.  Any law is based on the preexisting assumption that there is a right and a wrong side of a thing, but the line between the two is different between Christian and secular thinkers.

The Christian teaching on this says that the authority of a government is given to it by God to enforce law and maintain order (Romans 13: 1-8), and it should be obeyed.  In other words, the lawmaking bodies have a right to impose their values on the disobedient through the power vested in them by God,  the ultimate and final judge.  Furthermore, the definition of "disobedient" tends to closely parallel the definitions God has made.

Meanwhile, the secular argument draws legal authority to govern from "the people," that is the general or collective opinion of active voters or participants. This is often a shifting target, as population demographics change, and the needs and the beliefs of the public change with them.  It boils down to the law speaking for either the loudest, the biggest, or the strongest at any given moment.  It might even draw authority from one or a few individuals, especially those who control the resources.  The law's authority to impose its beliefs can also be drawn from historical precedent, or pragmatic statements such as "the greatest good for the greatest number."  All of these leave open the possibility that one population will be overlooked or wronged by another.

In summary, the authority of government can come from either absolute and unchanging sources (such as God and moral law), or from shifting or situational sources, such as popular opinion or majority rule.  Either way, it is true that one group is opposing another group of individuals, and the winning side is imposing its will on the other.

Wrap Up: How Should We Define Freedom?

In essence, the difference between the two sides of this argument on every point all look back to the existence of God.  The Christian position on freedom says that God limits freedom, and every limitation on freedom is a line He drew first.  Meanwhile, the secular argument assumes there is no God, and that the highest authority is humankind;  they write the rules, and can always change them if something new comes up.

I can go farther to say that where freedom is concerned, God has always been careful about drawing lines, but human beings tend to be much more impulsive and short-sighted.  We cannot see far into the future, as God can, and so our laws tend to be as limited as we are, based on only a partial grasp of the big picture.  If we remove God from the equation, freedom may seem freer at first, but it eventually leads to trouble in the long run.  God, on the other hand, set out rules to protect freedom for all time, drawing lines that never cross each other, no matter how long we follow along them.

Talking about freedom in light of today's situation on the moral and political fronts, I see the necessity to call everyone to prayer and serious personal reflection.  Without a revival, without a general as well as individual acceptance of God's authority, freedom is only a transient thing, and it may not last much longer in the United States. This comment in a forum was warning enough for me!  As we celebrate the sacrifices of those who have died protecting freedom here in America, we should pray that their hard-won gift to us can continue.  I think Twila Paris summed it up better than I can, in her song "What Did He Die For?"  I'm including it here, at the end of my message.