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The tyranny of left-wing “freedom”

Don’t fall for radical redefinitions of reality and liberty

President Joe Biden speaks at the White House on May 5. Associated Press/Photo by Evan Vucci, file

The tyranny of left-wing “freedom”
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As expected, President Biden recently launched his 2024 re-election campaign. His campaign theme is just “Freedom.” A recent piece in The Hill noted that Biden’s campaign team seeks to “flip the script on freedom,” by taking a traditionally Republican theme and using it to paint conservatives as authoritarians. Not a bad idea, if Biden was actually concerned about freedom properly understood.

Unfortunately, the “freedom” Biden and his team celebrates is defined in terms of abortion on demand, redefinition of marriage and the family, gender ideology, and the living out of one’s own definition of reality strengthened by the coercive power of the state. This isn’t freedom. It is the concrete expression of Psalm 2:3—“Let us tear their fetters apart, and cast away their cords from us!” The left’s conception of freedom is more aptly described by the old term license, which leads to tyranny.

In his new book on the English Civil War entitled The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603–1689, Jonathan Healey relates the story of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The plotters, including most famously Guy Fawkes, intended to blow up the House of Lords when everyone, including King James I, were all assembled to open Parliament after recess in early November.

The plotters were discovered, eight were tried and convicted as traitors under the leadership of Edward Coke. These eight were, as Healey describes it, “hanged to the brink of death, castrated, disemboweled, beheaded, and cut into quarters, all before an expectant crowd of Londoners.” But before the executions, the traitors were led to the place of execution facing and walking backwards. Why? To emphasize that they represented disorder, “of the world turned upside down,” in Healey’s words.

Our world is not the medieval world, but it remains a moral world. For freedom to be real, it must be ordered in morality. Freedom is not simply doing whatever one pleases. Freedom is not the epitome of relativism, subjectivity, or so-called “living my truth.” True freedom is ordered by just law, grounded upon the permanent truths established by a wise, sovereign, and good Creator God. A freedom unmoored from morality results in disorder, the turning of the world upside down.

One cannot define reality on one’s own terms. The conditions of reality are set for us by God, and freedom obtains when we submit to that reality and order our lives based on reality.

Our inheritance from the Western tradition, going all the way back to the Athenian Thucydides (460-395 BC), has consistently distinguished between freedom and license. Freedom results when there is a standing just law to live by, whereas license is the doing of whatever one pleases. The line between freedom and license is natural law.

Take transgenderism as an example. A man may feel as though he were a woman, may identify as a woman for any number of reasons, and may take hormone suppressing drugs and undergo surgical mutilation, but none of those things will result in making that man a woman, resolving the gender dysphoria he is suffering. In other words, reality stays the same, no matter what one thinks of it, or how one attempts to change it in the name of freedom. One cannot define reality on one’s own terms. The conditions of reality are set for us by God, and freedom obtains when we submit to that reality and order our lives based on reality. And reality is moral.

In the Politics, Aristotle wrote, “Men think that what is just is equal; and that equality is the supremacy of the popular will; and that freedom means the doing what a man likes. In such democracies every one lives as he pleases, or in the words of Euripides, ‘according to his fancy.’ But this is all wrong; men should not think it slavery to live according to the rule of the constitution; for it is their salvation.”

Epictetus asserted in his Discourses that a life lived by the principle of “I would have everything result just as I like, and in whatever way I like” is insanity, not freedom. Thomas Aquinas argued in the Summa Theologica that free people in society are directed to their good by just law, and this would be true even if there were no sin.

And Montesquieu argued in Spirit of the Law that virtue was the basis for freedom, and without virtue, the state perishes. He likened license to the life of a fugitive. The fugitive has thrown off constraint for a time, but he lives on the lam. The fugitive seeks to live above the law, rather than under the law. In contrast to license, “liberty can consist only in the power of doing what we ought to will, and in not being constrained to do what we ought not to will,” Montesquieu said.

We in the Western tradition have always believed and lived this way. We must refuse to accept the left’s attempts to redefine reality and redefine freedom. Freedom is only freedom when it is ordered. Disorder springs from license, the doing of whatever one pleases. Freedom under law results in human flourishing. License and disorder beget tyranny.

John D. Wilsey

John D. Wilsey is associate professor of church history and philosophy at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a research fellow at the Center for Religion, Culture, & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute.

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