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You Can’t Legislate Liberty, But Even Good Intentions Can Take It Away

What’s going on in California and Michigan (among other places) reminds me of a Biblical truth, and how that truth applies to our nation.

Just a little background first.

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that California Gov. Gavin Newsom expanded his beach closures from his original Orange County ban to the entire state. Now, at the local level, at least three counties are flouting the governor’s shutdown order. Protests are growing, and this will undoubtedly become a showdown between the governor’s power and the people’s will.

In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s plan to reopen by creating eight geographic regions that will operate on different schedules was met with more protests.

Some of this is simply poor communication. On the other end of the spectrum, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s statewide reopening also drew criticism because of poor communication. I believe Whitmer wants what Kemp wants, but she wants the government to take charge at a very granular level. The biggest charge I can level against Whitmer is that she has made things very political, sparring with President Trump. On the other hand, Kemp never earned Trump’s criticism, but received it anyway.

In contrast, Newsom has arguably handled the coronavirus crisis better than any state governor, including New York’s Andrew Cuomo, who talked a good game, but acted late. But Newsom has gone into full retaliation to regain control of a very diverse and antsy state that has been tremendously damaged by the lockdowns. Newsom’s mistake is that he triggered the Streisand Effect of psychological resistance–except instead of suppressing information, he’s suppressing liberty.

And this brings me back to the Biblical truth underlying this.

There is no solution to legislating, or dictating, morality that does not lead to suspension of liberty.

The first two thirds of the Bible make this very clear. If you read Leviticus or Deuteronomy, after the giving of the Biblical Law and the Ten Commandments (in Exodus 20) comes chapter after chapter of how the Law will be administered. Many capital transgressions are punishable by death. Many merit expulsion from the tribes. Many others are punished by temporary exile, along with a test for readmission, and penance paid through animal sacrifice.

There was very little liberty in ancient Israelite society. Moving forward through the kingdoms of Israel, past the exile to Babylon, to Jesus’ day, the Jewish people lived under a lot of rules, and a whole class of people whose entire purpose was to enforce them.

In the New Testament, Jesus’ only publicly recorded Scripture reading was of Isaiah 61:1-2.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:18-21

If you look at that Scripture closely, you’ll understand that the prisoners Jesus referred to aren’t physical prisoners who have been locked up. Jesus was speaking to free people in Nazareth. Many thought he meant political freedom from Roman rule and oppression, but they also missed it. Jesus told Pilate that he was indeed a king, but his Kingdom was not of this world.

Jesus meant that he came to free all, everyone, from the prison of the Law. Not that the Law itself was bad, because it came from God and God only gives good things. But the administration of the Law by human beings is a prison, because it restrains liberty.

The American ethos is that God created people, and that we are His good creation. He made us all equal in His sight, and therefore our ability to govern ourselves is the result of our moral free agency. Liberty is maximized when we realize that not everyone will act in accordance with God’s Law, neither can they be forced to do so without suspending liberty.

Our government, therefore, counted on its people to move toward a Judeo-Christian moral law. Our laws themselves are founded upon those principles. But our founders were wise enough not to legislate all morality, or to endorse a religious dogma. Were we to wish it as a people, our form of government and constitution allow us to completely dispense with all Biblical justice and legal precepts. We can legislate ourselves full freedom to sin and live in defiance of God’s Law.

In large part, we’ve done this in our society, and we’ve reaped the results of that divergence. We have division, crime, hate, and suspicion around every corner and under every rock. Our liberty is at risk because some who govern us want to remove it for what they say is our own good.

But God has made each of us a free moral agent, able to discern what is good and evil, and able to decide what is best for ourselves, our family, and our neighbor. That many discard Biblical principles of charity, compassion, justice and forgiveness and selfishly hoard these blessings is not a mark against God, but against ourselves.

The proof that those who wish to legislate morality for “a greater good” can only restrict liberty, and eventually reap rebellion, is seen on the beaches of California and the State House in Lansing, Michigan today.

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