Law, Freedom, and Tyranny

It would seem that our culture has been under an ever increasing pressure to legislate not only behavior but opinions and the expression thereof, as well. An ever-strengthening chorus is rising from those who would make illegal the expression of opinions that they themselves find repugnant.

Now, this is nothing new, of course. We who are Christians have been complicit in this tendency, as well. There have been many instances in world history in which our own religious communities have attempted to criminalize the expression of contrary opinions, too. Whether we use the term/phrase inquisition or fascism or totalitarian dictatorship or censorship or thought police, the scenes that arise in our imaginations are those of monolithic regimes attempting to control the thoughts and mouths of their constituents by force of law and ofttimes by violence . By including freedom of speech in the United States Bill of Rights, the framers of our own national polity sought to protect a freedom that has rarely, if ever, been afforded a populace.

There have always been words and sentiments that societies have wished to excise from public discourse. However, the attempt to do so brings with it a myriad of often unforeseen consequences for all who live under its governance. To silence even the most odious of opinions is to diminish severely the capacity of a society to encourage both the loyalty and the character of its citizenry.

To silence even the most odious of opinions is to diminish a society severely. Click To Tweet

1920s author and educator R. M. MacIver in his book The Modern State warned long ago as follows:

Why must we deny the state this right to regulate opinion, a right which it has owned almost up to our own time?. . . .Force allies itself as easily with falsehood as with truth, so that its mere invocation in support of an opinion is a blasphemy against truth. Opinion can be fought only by opinion. Only thus is it possible for truth to be revealed. Force would snatch from truth its only means of victory. Force can suppress opinion, but only by suppressing the mind which is the judge of truth. . . .When the law of the state is exercised over opinion, then it becomes sheer coercion. . . .Law therefore becomes false to itself when it would enforce belief.

Force can suppress opinion, but only by suppressing the mind. Click To Tweet

. . . .

What then is the relation of law to morality? Law cannot prescribe morality, it can prescribe only external actions, and therefore it should prescribe only those actions whose mere fulfilment [sic], from whatever motive, the state adjudges to be conducive to welfare. . . .But it shows us clearly that law does not and cannot cover all the ground of morality. To turn all moral obligations into legal obligations would be to destroy morality. . . .To legislate against the moral codes of one’s fellows is a very grave act, requiring for its justification the most indubitable and universally admitted of social gains, for it is to steal their moral codes, to suppress their characters. Here we find the condemnation of ‘puritanic’ legislation, which claims that its own morals should be those of all, even to the point of destroying all moral spontaneity that is not their own. There are groups which, with good but narrow intentions, are always urging the state in this retrograde direction. . . .They cannot see that certain actions which they are perfectly entitled to regard as moral offences are not necessarily a proper object of political legislation. They demand censorship of the stage, of literature, and of art, assigning thereby to some executive official the power of deciding in advance what a whole people shall be permitted to read and think and witness and enjoy (MacIver, The Modern State, loc. 1941-1954, 2001).

To turn all moral obligations into legal obligations would be to destroy morality. Click To Tweet

If we, as a society, are to have any chance at finding unity within our diversity, our government must ensure that opinions are permitted to be voiced and confronted with contrary or alternative opinions. If we continue to bend to the pressure to outlaw words and opinions which offend or even disgust, I fear we will sow the seeds of our own undoing. The following words from MacIver might do more to explain the social unrest of our times than the words of any prophet at any time:

The inner sanction of morality should never be confused with that of political law. We obey the law not necessarily because we think that the law is right, but because we think it right to obey the law. Otherwise the obedience of every minority would rest on compulsion, and there would be so much friction in the state that its working would be fatally embarrassed (MacIver, loc. 1965).

Perhaps the following excerpt from a speech written for Jean Luc Picard from the Star Trek series The Next Generation might drive home our peril. For Christians, we must love our enemies by allowing them to speak against us. For those who are not Christians, you will enslave yourselves if you insist on not allowing us to speak against you. The tyranny of the state is sown when its people vote to outlaw opinions with which they do not agree. The thought police we enlist will inevitably come after us once our enemies are vanquished. Let’s learn to protect the rights both to think and to speak of those whose opinions we find repugnant. Let’s confront opinion with opinion. Once the sword is drawn, we will not be able to control how it is wielded.

The tyranny of the state is sown when its people vote to outlaw contrary opinions. Click To Tweet

~ J. Thomas