Individualism and the Death of Liberty

Jim Tonkowich | Cornwall Alliance for Stewardship of Creation | Thursday, March 4, 2010

Individualism and the Death of Liberty

March 4, 2010

No one will be surprised by the assertion that American culture—including most of the American Church—is characterized by individualism. Self-actualization, deciding for oneself, and believing what seems true to you, is seen not only as a right, but as a duty. "To thine own self be true," a phrase that Shakespeare puts on the lips of a fool, is perhaps more our American motto than the old "E Pluribus Unum."

All this individualism is, we are told, a way to maximize our freedom. It allows us to do as we please and thus become our best selves as we define our best selves. In the 1992 Casey Decision Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy famously (or possibly infamously) wrote that every person has "the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of life." It would be hard to define life more individualistically and freedom more expansively.

Yet individualism, rather than increasing freedom, invariably results in less freedom. This is because individuals need to be protected. If that protection does not come from the loving community of family and Church, the government steps in with all sorts of strings attached. Thus individualism encourages more government control over our lives.

The most glaring example is same-sex marriage that continues to gain ground one state at a time.

Same-sex couples in the name of individualism and personal autonomy demand that the government stay out of their bedroom. How dare the law infringe on the right to choose whom to love and marry? Everyone should be free to choose in a world of "marriage equity."

But "marriage equity" frees no one. Instead it invites the government to take up permanent residence in same-sex bedrooms. Couples who cohabitate—regardless of whether they are gay or straight—are for the most part free to uncouple and go their separate ways at the drop of a hat even if there are children involved. Married couples find it a lot more complicated since the government has to grant them a divorce. Aye, there's the rub.

The Goodrich decision that brought same-sex marriage to Massachusetts is a case in point. Two women sued for the right to marry and Massachusetts law was overturned to accommodate them. Not long after their magical day, however, the two decided to split up. And what did they find in their bedroom? Lawyers, court appearances, alimony, community property, child sharing arrangements, and piles of paperwork. Their marriage brought government into their bedroom taking away more freedom than it offered.

According to William Duncan writing in the journal The Family in America, laws are being suggested that will subject even cohabitation to government oversight. He notes the fear first voiced in 1975 by sociologist Robert Nisbet that "every relationship in society" will be treated as a "potentially legal relationship." And every legal relationship is regulated by the government yielding not more, but less freedom.

The "freedom" of same-sex marriage also constricts the freedom of those opposed to it. Natural Law and religious law, many of us have argued, define marriage as between one man and one woman. Thus marriage and family are prior to the state and take precedence over any claim the state may make.

Through most of history, with assorted horrific exceptions, the state has recognized this to be true. It has affirmed family and church as mediating institutions and has granted them the liberty to define human behavior and relationships within their spheres.

This is why we have had conscience clauses. Doctors, nurses, and hospitals do not have to participate in abortions. Adoption agencies did not have to place children with same-sex couples or any other couple they deemed inappropriate. Religious groups are permitted to include in membership, employment, and leadership only those who confessed the same faith in the same way.

But that liberty is eroding for everyone because of individualistic claims enforced by government.

In a recent Touchstone article entitled, "The Audacity of the State," Douglas Farrow, Professor of Christian Thought at McGill University writes:

Today we live in a society that shrinks in horror from the very idea of established religion, something the American Constitution in any case forbids. Yet we live, even if we live in America, in states increasingly ready to withdraw conscience clauses not only from public servants but also from doctors and druggists and so forth, requiring them to violate the teachings of their religion and the dictates of their consciences in order to demonstrate their allegiance to the state. 

…We have come round, that is, to the de-sacralization of the church and the re-sacralization of the state, which is once again taking a tyrannical turn. 

Thus in the same-sex marriage debate the state has been granted—or, to be more accurate, has seized—the prerogative to define marriage and force that definition on us all regardless of faith and family. Farrow notes:

Crafty fools ask foolish fools, "What harm does same-sex marriage do to your marriage, or to your family?" The truthful answer is: Same-sex marriage makes us all chattels of the state, because the state, in presuming to define the substance rather than the accidents of marriage, has made marriage itself a state artifact. 

In short, government places itself in the privileged position of deciding proper human ends, directing us in its version of human blessedness, and bulldozing the family and the church—the two institutions who have traditionally claimed that privilege.

We would be wise to reread even the first pages of Saint Augustine's City of God. In those pages, Augustine reminds us that love for God and neighbor characterize the City of God while the City of Man (the secular order including the state) is defined by the libido dominandi, the lust to rule, dominate, and control others.

Christianity is always personal, but it is never, never individualistic. The one true God who is in his Trinitarian self a communion of person created us for community. And it is only in the community of Church and family that we can hope to be sheltered from the libido dominandi of an audacious state encouraged ironically by flocks of hapless men and women asserting, of all things, their individualism.

Jim Tonkowich is a Senior Fellow at the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and a scholar at the Institute on Religion & Democracy. He holds a degree in philosophy from Bates College and both a Master of Divinity and a Doctor of Ministry from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. More of his work can be found at