From Libertarianism to Authoritarianism
Robert Benne

Barack Obama was California’s Presidential favorite this fall by a long shot. But surprisingly, Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage, passed by 52–48 in this socially liberal state. The same sort of ban passed in Florida and Arizona.

On one hand, it seems like social conservatives are winning the culture war. But Proposition 8’s passage led to a campaign of vituperation and calumny that was one of the most intimidating reactions to a lost election that I have witnessed. There were mean-spirited attacks on the Mormon Church, which supported Proposition 8, and a tremendous campaign to dislodge Rick Warren, who also supported the Proposition, from offering a prayer at the Obama inauguration. No doubt, proponents of Proposition 8 will be labeled “extremists,” (regardless of the fact that they were defending a social pattern that has been with us for thousands of years), and, of course, the courts will weigh in again to reverse the will of the people

This continued agitation for the right of “free choice” in marital matters strikes a seemingly libertarian social posture. That will be followed by the courts finding the “right” to marry whomever one wishes in the Constitution, or, more likely, in their own legal philosophies. Then an interesting move will take place. The courts, followed or led by state or federal legislatures, will decide that recognition of homosexual marriage is mandatory for other social institutions. Actions that were once justified by appealing to libertarian notions will then be protected by authoritarian means. For example, the Massachusetts Supreme Court acted in exactly this way with regard to the recognition of homosexual unions. Following that decision, the state required all social service agencies that provided adoption services to offer those services to homosexual couples, even when the agencies’ moral codes prohibited that. Catholic adoption services were forced to close down because they would not abide by the Court’s coercive rules. No right of free choice there—rather, authoritarian suppression of those rights. One could elaborate many more examples of this process. For example, the close call the Boy Scouts of America had when their right to set standards for their own leadership was under fire legally.

“Choice” is further diminished by widespread “shaming” of those who disagree with such “protection.” Californians who speak out publicly on these matters are often intimidated by loud denunciation. Dissenters to the newly protected behaviors are called “bigots” and “homophobes.” They are charged with being “anti-gay,” when in reality they are “pro-traditional marriage” and may support gay rights in other sectors of social life.

Though we aren’t there yet in the United States, even speaking against homosexual conduct has been deemed “hate speech” by government agencies in Canada and some Scandinavian countries. A movement that once called for tolerance became intolerant once it got its way legally. In those countries the full weight of the law falls upon social conservatives who believe in traditional marital arrangements. It remains to be seen whether America will honor its commitment to the free exercise of religion in these matters.

Take another hot-button issue—abortion—and notice the same trajectory. First, unfettered choice in “reproductive matters” is demanded, a seemingly libertarian claim (even though abortion snuffs out all the future “choices” of a nascent human being). Social conservatives, believing that choices should be sharply limited if choice means the killing of nascent life, have been successful in erecting some minimal restraints on abortion—parental notification, waiting periods, banning of “partial birth abortion,” and making it illegal to transport minors across state lines for the procedure. However, we soon will have before Congress the Freedom of Choice Act, which, if enacted in its present form, will sweep away all the restraints that were painstakingly erected over thirty years. But the bill doesn’t stop there. It will require medical doctors and institutions who receive any sort of federal money to honor the newly enacted right by performing abortions for all who request it. No conscience clause. Doctors and hospitals will have to do what is demanded of them by a new law that protects the practice of abortion. Either do what is required or leave your profession or close your doors. Libertarian pleas for choice turn into authoritarian suppression of choice.

A list of other social behaviors favored by the secular liberal elite are good candidates for similar trajectories. Physician-assisted suicide, embryonic stem cell research, the prescription of abortion-inducing contraceptive drugs, and offering fertility treatment for whoever desires it may well make their way from choice to protected behaviors.

Social conservatives have seen many of the laws and cultural patterns that they believe are anchored in God’s will or the natural law swept away in the last fifty years. Some of those laws and patterns were rightfully consigned to oblivion; racist laws, for example, were certainly not anchored in God’s will or the natural law and needed to be swept away. But others now under contention cannot be so easily dismissed and dispensed with. Yet the tables are now being turned. Liberals are justifying their favored behaviors by appealing to choice and then, once established, protecting them in an authoritarian way. Their disfavored behaviors are increasingly put under government control.

Perhaps what we need is a return to the old fashioned liberalism that invited real diversity and was willing—within limits—to tolerate beliefs and behaviors of which it disapproved, as well as to allow real dissent from those behaviors and beliefs it favored. Social conservatives might welcome such a liberalism.


Robert Benne is Director of the Roanoke College Center for Religion and Society.


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