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Conservatives canceled in Brussels

A free-speech showdown in Belgium shows a weakening foundation for liberty

Former MEP Nigel Farage speaks during the National Conservatism conference in Brussels on Tuesday. Associated Press/Photo by Virginia Mayo

Conservatives canceled in Brussels
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After being turned down by two other venues, the National Conservatism Conference in Brussels, Belgium, found itself being confronted by police who refused to let any more guests enter the building and also stopped food and beverage deliveries. This was to enforce an order delivered by the socialist mayor of the Saint-Josse-ten-Noode district where the event was to take place.

The mayor’s justification was that this gathering consisted of European thinkers and politicians of a variety he didn’t like. Among his objections

That vision is not only ethically conservative (e.g. hostility to legalized abortion, same-sex unions, etc.) but also focused on the defense of “national sovereignty”, which implies, among other things, an “Eurosceptic” attitude.

To put it in the clearest terms possible, a bureaucrat in Belgium decreed that an event where viewpoints he did not like—but are nonetheless within the pale of reasonable opinions to hold— should be shut down.

The action was condemned by the prime minister of Belgium, Alexander De Croo:

What happened at the Claridge today is unacceptable. Municipal autonomy is a cornerstone of our democracy but can never overrule the Belgian constitution guaranteeing the freedom of speech and peaceful assembly since 1830. Banning political meetings is unconstitutional. Full stop. 

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also expressed his disagreement as did other European heads of state.

The brouhaha in Brussels illustrates the fragile nature of free speech in many European countries as opposed to the more robust provisions guaranteed in the United States by the First Amendment. Belgium, like other countries, ostensibly guarantees the right of assembly and speech, but the protections are much flimsier than what is guaranteed under the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. You don’t have to agree with the content of the NatCon conference to be alarmed by the presence of (literal) thought police attempting to shut down political discourse.

Thankfully, the NatCon conference has had its day in court, quite literally, and the conference was allowed to resume. The highest court in Belgium, the Conseil d’État, in a ruling declared, “Article 26 of the Constitution [of Belgium] grants everyone the right to assemble peacefully,” although the mayor has the authority to make police ordinances in case of “serious disturbance of the public peace or other unforeseen events.”

There is much here to learn for American Christians. We should first be grateful to live in a nation with robust First Amendment protections. We can also note the ironies that abound in Belgium. On the one hand, the legal arguments being made in defense of the National Conservative Conference are made on a basis of a classical liberalism that National Conservatives often loudly critique. This is what happens when a government is empowered to enforce belief. We naively assume the state will always choose beliefs we share. The Founders understood the folly of this way of thinking and wisely created a system that protects freedom.

Freedom only flourishes when it rests on a foundation of moral virtue, specifically Judeo-Christian values.

At the same time, the feckless local mayor, in the name of defending democracy, only served to weaken liberal democracy by springing his officers on a peaceful gathering of political thinkers with whom he disagreed.

Winston Churchill once said that democracy is “the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” In a fallen world, it dilutes power and thus best advances freedom and human flourishing. Yet its Christian critics, like those who gathered in Brussels, have a point worth hearing. Freedom only flourishes when it rests on a foundation of moral virtue, specifically Judeo-Christian values.

Europe’s version of classical liberalism features a hollowed out public square, filled by the false promises of secularism and modernity. The state, then, is pushed to dissent against those who seem insufficiently supportive of progressive aims, such as the sexual revolution. And thus, you get a democracy that must stifle free speech in the name of freedom.

America should learn this lesson. We enjoy perhaps history’s greatest experiment in human government, but it will not endure simply on procedural legal arguments and appeals to fairness. As John Adams rightly said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

The American experiment is premised on finding the proper relationship between liberty and virtue. Harvey Mansfield writes: “It doesn’t seem likely that a society dedicated to liberty could make much of virtue, nor that one resolved to have virtue could pride itself on liberty. Yet liberty and virtue also seem necessary to each other. A free people, with greater opportunity to misbehave than a people in shackles, needs the guidance of an inner force to replace the lack of external restraint. And virtue cannot come from within, or truly be virtue, unless it is voluntary and people are free to choose it.”

As a Baptist Christian, I’m unwilling to entertain ideas of an established state church, which usually ends poorly for both the church and the state. At the same time, we must see the necessity of a robust church as a bulwark against the excesses of liberalism, a conscience in the culture, and as the proclaimer of gospel truth.

Let’s pray, then, that democracy flourishes in our own country and among our allies in Europe. But let’s pray just as urgently for a spiritual renewal essential to the survival of liberty.

Daniel Darling

Daniel Darling is director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His forthcoming book is Agents of Grace. He is also a bestselling author of several other books, including The Original Jesus, The Dignity Revolution, The Characters of Christmas, The Characters of Easter, and A Way With Words and the host of a popular weekly podcast, The Way Home. Dan holds a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry from Dayspring Bible College, has studied at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Angela have four children.

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