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Liberalism Repealing Freedom

by James Hitchcock
March 27, 2004

The United States stands apart from the rest of the Western world in terms of what can be called cultural conservatism. As has often been noticed, Americans profess religious beliefs and attend church far more than most other Westerners, and the United States is almost the only Western country where issues such as abortion and homosexual "marriage" are still seriously debated, where, depending on who is in office, public policy actually embodies traditional moral principles. Religion is a respectable subject in America, much talked about in public.

One way of looking at this is to say that the United States is less liberal than other nations, more wedded to "outmoded" ideas. However, it is hard to understand why, since sociologists have been saying for a century that modern technological society inevitably undermines traditional beliefs and ways of life. Why should the world's most technologically advanced nation be more traditional-minded than other countries which are not as far along on the curve of modernity?

But if the United States can in one sense be considered less liberal than, for example, Canada, in another sense it remains firmly liberal, even as other Western nations seem ready to cut the heart out of what liberalism has always meant.

In Canada writers and editors have been fined for expressing certain ideas, and courts have even censored publications in advance. In several European countries clergy have been prosecuted for things said from the pulpit. (In Belgium this treatment has been threatened against a priest who was recently made a cardinal.) In Ireland a "civil rights" organization proposes to bring charges against Pope John Paul II, and the newly established International Criminal Court (which the United States does not support) is available for just such purposes.

These prosecutions charge the defendants with "hate crimes," usually involving disapproval of homosexuality or speaking less than respectfully about other people's religion, particularly Islam. As yet the American courts have not restricted freedom in this way, which is why we remain a more liberal nation than many others.

But it is quite amazing that "enlightened" opinion in the United States has not sounded the alarm at what is going on elsewhere, which is nothing less than a systematic repeal of that freedom of expression which has been the bedrock of liberal society for two hundred years. Quite obviously, fashionable opinion-makers in America see nothing to be alarmed about, and some of them look forward to the day when the same repression of liberty can be implemented here.

The concept of a "hate crime" is dubious, since it is often hard to determine people's motives and any illegal act committed out of hatred is already a crime and can be prosecuted as such. But if we must recognize "hate crimes," it is crucial that a wide line be drawn between criminal actions and mere expressions of opinion, and it is precisely that line which most Western nations seem now in the process of erasing.

Traditional liberalism was passionate about this - "I disapprove of what you say, but I will fight to the death your right to say it." Before expressions of opinion can be prosecuted, courts have usually demanded clear proof that the words led directly to illegal actions, and were intended to do so. Liberals have long condemned those court decisions which punished merely unpopular ideas.

Now liberal opinion seems willing to draw a straight line between, for example, a physical assault on a homosexual and a clergyman's preaching that homosexuality is unnatural. But it should be noticed that these "hate crimes" are selective. No one, as far as I know, has been prosecuted for saying things against orthodox Christianity.

Traditionalists have long warned that a society cannot endure without a moral consensus at its core, something which liberals have often denied. The move to prosecute "hate crimes" proves the traditionalists right. As someone
has cynically noticed, "tolerance" is something which people demand for themselves while in the process of moving to impose a new orthodoxy, which is precisely what is now happening throughout much of the Western world.

James Hitchcock,
professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. Dr. Hitchcock's The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, Vol. 1 The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses and Vol. II From 'Higher Law' to 'Sectarian Scruples', were released by Princeton University Press September 2, 2004.

E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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