Nearly a quarter of a century ago the United States Supreme Court claimed to have expanded dramatically the scope of liberty in its famous decision, Planned Parenthood vs. Casey. One sentence in particular stands out for its breathtaking vision of the extraordinary possibilities apparently available to ordinary human beings: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” The author of this “sweet mystery of life” passage was Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has been on the court since 1988.
On the surface it seems as though this decision simply affirms something approximating religious freedom, that is, the right to believe or to disbelieve in God. A citizen of the United States is at liberty to decide which spiritual path to follow without undue interference from the state. The very next sentence appears to bear this out: “Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.”
Justice therefore would seem to entail allowing people as much liberty as possible in those matters deemed most personal and intimate. Or, as our current Prime Minister’s late father once put it: “There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” However self-evidently good this newly discovered liberty might seem at first glance, the current judicial régimes in both countries appear to have declared our freedom from reality itself – a dream once thought to be limited to utopians and revolutionaries. Yet if we take Kennedy’s words seriously, we have now become little gods, fully authorized to define liberty to suit our own conception of the cosmos, to which everyone else is now expected to conform. An otherwise salutary effort to curtail state compulsion has now effectively expanded the same.
For the past decade and a half the Canadian government has claimed the authority to redefine marriage by eliminating sexual complementarity as a necessary feature. Last year the US Supreme Court imposed this new definition on all fifty states, despite the objections of many of those states’ citizens at the polls. The most recent bone of contention has to do with the individual’s right to choose between male and female washrooms in public settings. If a man genuinely believes himself to be a woman deep down, does justice require permitting him to enter through the door marked women? Or do the biological women using this facility have a right to privacy that trumps this man’s self-definition?
These are the sorts of disputes that inevitably follow any serious attempt to implement the notion that we define ourselves irrespective of our embodied nature and the judgement of others. Such disputes inevitably call forth the strong arm of government for resolution.
The late Václav Havel, writing of his own Soviet-era Czechoslovakia, affirmed that political ideologies try to pass off appearances for reality itself. They build a self-contained pseudo-reality to which everyone is expected to pay lip service. In this alternative universe slavery passes for liberty, censorship for free speech, bureaucracy for democracy, and arbitrary power for legal authority. Those caught up in this régime are compelled to “live within a lie.” Anyone daring to point out that this pseudo-reality is, well, unreal can expect to suffer ostracism or possibly much worse.
To be sure, the current political climate in North America is not as bad as that of the former Soviet Union and its clients. Nevertheless, a similar spirit is at work here. That spirit tells us that we are autonomous, capable of authoring, not only our own actions, but reality itself. And if others are clever enough to see through our self-deceptions, they will have to be silenced – gently, one hopes.
What then of those who persist in believing, to paraphrase the Heidelberg Catechism, that we are not our own and that our world belongs to God? What of those who believe that a loving God created the cosmos and placed us at its pinnacle to fashion the rest of creation into cultural artefacts and to live according to principles that God himself authored? The current secular orthodoxy generously permits us to believe these things privately, and it is even willing to allow us some space to live them out, but only if they do not conflict with its own expanded understanding of individual liberty as self-definition.
In the meantime Christians will have to be content to live against the grain of the larger society, recognizing that we answer to Another to whom we owe our ultimate allegiance.
This appeared in the author's Principalities & Powers column in Christian Courier's 9 May 2016 issue.
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