In his acute analysis of the character and institutions of the United States, Democracy in America , Alexis de Tocqueville, a nineteenth-century French liberal, stressed the importance of what we call “civil society.” American democracy, Tocqueville understood, wasn’t just a matter of the state, here , and the individual, there . Between the state (or government) and the people there were the many free, voluntary associations that formed the sinews and musculature of America. Those free associations performed many essential social functions: they educated the young, served the poor, and cared for the sick.

Writing a century and a half after Tocqueville, Pope John Paul II also highlighted the importance of voluntary associations for the free and virtuous society. Those associations, the pope argued, shape the human personality of a political community”what John Paul called, in his philosopher’s vocabulary, the “subjectivity of society.” Thus, in a democracy”a way of self-government that depends on the character of a people”the institutions of civil society are schools of freedom: the elementary schools of democracy.

Think about it this way: Every two-year-old is a natural-born tyrant, a beautiful bundle of willfulness and self-absorption who demands (sometimes winsomely and often loudly) that he or she get what he or she wants” now. Who, or what, turns all those two-year-old tyrants into democrats: mature men and women capable of being democratic citizens? Where do we learn what Tocqueville called the habits of mind and heart, and what moral philosophers from Aristotle to John Paul II have called the virtues, that are necessary for the machinery of democracy to work well?

We learn them first in the family, which is the fundamental, irreplaceable institution of civil society. We also learn those habits of heart and mind in friendships and in school, in clubs and sports and in religious communities. Men and women who, later in life, take responsibility for making government work first learned how to do so, not from the state, but from the civil society institutions in which they grew up. Adults who take the responsibilities of citizenship seriously did not learn their sense of civic obligation from a governmental agency. They learned to be responsible and civil and tolerant, flexible but principled, in more humane schools: the free, voluntary associations that Tocqueville and John Paul II celebrated.

Democracy means, among many other things , that the government is not everything; thus Mussolini’s definition of totalitarianism (“Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state”) is the absolute antithesis of democracy”indeed, the very antithesis of freedom. Throughout history, just states (whether democratic or not) have understood that there are limits to their powers: There are certain things that just states simply cannot do.

With rare exceptions, the just state cannot interfere in the doctor-patient relationship or the lawyer-client relationship; it can never interfere in the priest-penitent relationship; it ought to be extremely chary of interfering in the parent-child relationship (save in obvious cases like abuse); and there are limits (always subject to debate and adjustment) about the state’s reach into the employer-employee relationship. The just state acknowledges the integrity of these primary, fundamental, civil society relationships and protects them legally. It has no business reinventing or redefining those relationships, for the just state exists to serve civil society, not vice versa.

Marriage is the primordial civil society relationship, for it is the basis of the family, which is the primordial civil society institution. That is why, for millennia, states have protected marriage, understood as what it is: the stable union of a man and a woman ordered to the begetting and raising of children. When a state claims the right to alter the definition of marriage to include same-sex relationships, it is tacitly claiming the right to redefine the number of persons who may make a marriage (why stop at two?); it is also tacitly claiming the right to redefine, by governmental fiat, every other pre-existing free association of civil society.

That claim is antithetical to the freedom of individuals, families, and society.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here .

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