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Stephen Cox is Professor of Literature at the University of California-San Diego, editor of Liberty, a journal of culture and politics, and author of several scholarly books, including American Christianity: The Continuing Revolution. First Things senior editor Mark Bauerlein spoke to him about the libertarian understanding of religious liberty at the present time.

What is the basic libertarian understanding of religious liberty in United States law and society?

Libertarians would like the state to have nothing to do with religion, either by hindering it or by supporting it. I’m sure that few libertarians would rejoice to see the Ten Commandments implanted on courthouse lawns, or to hear of more students forbidden to mention Christ in their valedictory speeches. Libertarian hearts beat violently when there is any news of censorship, inspired by either atheists or Christians.

Now, many libertarians have the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted, not by the standard of what it literally says, but in accordance with the general values of individual freedom that inspired it. They therefore applaud conservative interpretations of property rights, gun rights, and so on; and they also applaud liberal interpretations of the “right to privacy.” I and many other libertarians disagree. We believe that the Constitution is not a gesture toward certain philosophical assumptions, or a plant that is always “growing and changing”; we believe that it has a determinate meaning. Seen from this perspective, the Constitution has nothing to do with the semi-official expressions of religious opinion that conservatives and liberals are always fighting about in court: “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, crosses on hillsides, and (for God’s sake) crosses on the coats of arms of cities founded by Spanish missionaries.

Up until the mid-twentieth century, mainstream American culture was largely WASP-oriented. Given the breakdown of WASP dominance in the last fifty years, do you think that we have moved closer to realizing genuine religious liberty in the United States?

I think that the influence of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants has been greatly overrated. My own people, the Scotch Irish, did very well for themselves in America. The consolidation of American culture that took place in the Old Northwest during the nineteenth century owes more to the Scotch Irish than it does to WASPS.

But let’s look at the real New England WASPs. In the eighteenth century, they lost the battle to maintain large and enthusiastic membership in their established church. Then they lost the church establishment. Then they lost, almost all of them, their own Calvinist faith. They maintained a kind of literary-cultural dominance that lasted until the late-nineteenth century. But by the 1820s, when Lyman Beecher was lamenting the lack of Calvinism in New England churches, and certainly by the 1850s, when his son, Henry Ward Beecher, was preaching a non-Calvinist, non-New England gospel of Love, WASPs had lost the political power they once exercised over other people’s religious or non-religious practices. After that, their influence was exerted socially rather than religiously, by their dominance in many prestige schools and organizations, but I doubt that had much to do with religious liberty.

Many social and legal changes in recent times have been directed against religious constraints on behaviors and choices. Can you single out one or two instances that have been particularly important to libertarians?

Libertarians tend to be moralistic people. I’m probably an even bigger moralist than other libertarians, because I’m a Christian. But as libertarians see it, every forcible infringement of liberty is morally outrageous, whether it’s military conscription or a law that criminalizes hair-braiding in the home. Of course this means that libertarians are unanimous in supporting the end of victimless crime laws, which are often highly favored by religious people, on religious grounds.

When I say “religious people,” I refer not simply to people on the Right. When I was writing my book about the history of American Christianity, I was constantly impressed by the extent to which the religious left has tried to interfere with individual choices. For almost one hundred years, the mainstream denominations, led by modern liberals, have done their best to support government interventions in people’s choices, by their dedicated support of the welfare state. In the old days of strong government regulation of broadcasting, they did their best to keep evangelical programming off the air. We need to remember that Prohibition was a creature of the left, too, and so were attacks on homosexuality and “dirty” literature.

Asked about a certain religious leader, William Blake said, “He is a sent man”—sent by God. Then he added, “But they who are sent sometimes go further than they ought.” In America, they often go further. The quantity of moralistic meddling never diminishes; it just shifts from one target to the next, from attacks on extramarital sex, for example, to attacks on people who don’t approve of extramarital sex.

Is there a live debate among libertarians today over abortion?

I don’t think there is. I’m not sure why, because many libertarians think there is nothing wrong with abortion, deeming a fetus not to be a child, while many others believe that individual human life begins at conception or soon thereafter. Maybe the lack of debate results from the real political situation, which is that abortion is legal and is very likely to remain that way. I should add, however, that there is a school of libertarian thought which emphasizes the idea that many actions that can be identified as immoral should nevertheless not be criminalized. I can tell lies that will wreck a friend’s psychological health; I can deliberately and perversely undermine my students’ faith; I can convince young people, Ellsworth Toohey-like, to make decisions that will ruin their lives. These things are evil, but who among us would criminalize them? Many libertarians are simply unwilling to allow the state to decide such non-obvious questions as the status of the unborn, which involves issues on which the state has no competence, including the existence and origin of the human soul.

It seems that one hot area of litigation in the coming years will involve the clash of religious liberty claims and anti-discrimination claims. How would a libertarian approach such cases as the New Mexico wedding photographer and the Colorado baker who refused their services for same-sex weddings?

There are no divisions among libertarians about issues of this kind. Liberty is the freedom of individual people to do whatever they want to do, so long as they don’t forcibly prevent others from doing the same. The fact that you don’t want to publish my article or take my picture or bake me a cake doesn’t mean that you’ve attacked me in some way and ought to be, in effect, enslaved and forced to do my bidding. The same goes for hiring decisions, rental decisions, and every other decision that is not implemented through force or fraud. Equality cannot be achieved by forcing people to do one’s will. Force means superiority, not equality. But I suspect that to many people in our society, including many religious people, the desire for recognition and approval supersedes the professed desire for equality. They don’t mind forcing other people to “approve” their values. This is pretty sad, however you look at it.

In the current situation, is there common ground for social conservatives and libertarians?

Today, social conservatives and libertarians have common ground that they haven’t had in the past. I make that statement with some reservations, knowing that both Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley, Jr., had no problem saying that they were libertarians, and that the founders of the libertarian movement often referred to themselves as conservatives. That was common ground, at least in their minds! But one of the most notable political facts of today is that the majority of conservative agitation has the same goal as libertarian agitation—reduction of the power of the state.

I think conservatives see the likelihood that a more libertarian society would be, in many senses, a more conservative one. When you limit the power of the state, you enhance the vitality of the private sphere. It is in the private sphere that real people make real moral and social judgments, and in America those judgments largely proceed from conservative reasoning. It is conservative to value the continuity and responsibility of family life; it is conservative to mind your own business about other people’s family life, or lack thereof.

Finally, what advice would you give to social conservatives who feel that the prevailing trends in culture and politics are running headlong against them?

I myself am disgusted with many of the cheap, coarse features of our culture that disgust social conservatives, especially when those features have the effect of dulling or cheapening young people’s minds. But let’s face it, there is a lot of cheapness and coarseness in the churches as well; that’s fallen human nature. I would advise social conservatives to become a little more realistic about their own practices, especially about forms of propaganda that—just to seize on one example—represent pornography in the same way that prohibitionists used to represent intoxicating beverages: one “exposure” to the stuff, and you’re doomed to a life of addiction and crime.

We need to recognize that values have complicated origins and a complicated structure and, for want of a better phrase, a complicated and mysterious allure. One of the reasons Americans became more attached to religion in the nineteenth century was that they started living in cities where there was more than one church—many more than one. Now there was a church for you, whoever you were, and religious adherence soared. Conservative cultural choices usually gain a lot from a competitive environment. And, of course, Americans who want to conserve their traditional values should want to conserve the competitive environment that is traditional in America.

An uncontrolled and uncensored marketplace (no laws against “smut”; no political correctness, either) allows people with important religious and cultural ideas to communicate them to infinitely various people in infinitely various ways. It also allows for the cheap, the vulgar, the fake, the disgusting in human choices. But do you think that the culture Sinclair Lewis satirized, or the culture Henry Fielding satirized, or the culture St. Paul criticized was any less vulgar than our own? Despite human beings’ libido for the vulgar, the great religious leaders have always known how to inspire them with better ideas. I say “inspire,” not “command.” I can’t imagine anything less inspiring than being a cultural hall monitor, always running to the government for a license to snoop, pry, and meddle. When conservatives do that, they lose the cultural battle, which is not a battle for conformity but for values that are enthusiastically embraced. 

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