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catholic_church_1024x768Liberty itself must be limited in order to be possessed.Edmund Burke

Anarchy, Freedom’s own Judas, the vile prodigal License who steals the gold of liberty.Oscar Wilde

In an age that seems to believe that Christianity is an obstacle to liberty, it will prove provocative to insist, contrary to such belief, that Christian faith is essential to liberty’s very existence. Yet, as counter-intuitive as it may seem to disciples of the progressivist zeitgeist, it must be insisted that faith enshrines freedom. Without the shrine that faith erects to freedom the liberties that we take for granted will be eroded and ultimately destroyed. Faith preserves freedom. It protects it. It insists upon it. Where there is faith there is freedom. Where faith falters, so does freedom. This truth, so uncomfortably perplexing for so many of our contemporaries, was encapsulated by G. K. Chesterton when he asserted that “the modern world, with its modern movements, is living on its Catholic capital.  It is using, and using up, the truths that remain to it out of the old treasury of Christendom.”[1]

One of the truths of Christendom which lays the very foundations of freedom is the Christian insistence on the mystical equality of all people in the eyes of God and the insistence on the dignity of the human person that follows logically, inexorably and inescapably from such an insistence. If everyone is equal in the eyes of God, it doesn’t matter if people are black or white, healthy or sick, able-bodied or handicapped, or whether babies are inside the womb or out of it. It doesn’t matter that people are different, in terms of race, age or innate abilities; they are all equal in the eyes of God and, therefore, of necessity, in the eyes of Man also. This is the priceless inheritance of Christendom with which our freedoms are established and maintained. If everyone is equal in the eyes of God and Man, everyone must also be equal in the eyes of the law.

If, however, the equality of man is denied, freedom is imperiled. The belief of Nietzsche, adopted by the Nazis, that humanity consists of übermenschen and untermenschen, the “over-men” and the “under-men”, led to people being treated as subhuman, worthy of extermination and victims of genocide. The progressivist belief of Hegel, adopted by Marx and his legion of disciples, that a rationalist dialectic, mechanistically determined, governs the progress of humanity, led to the deterministic inhumanity of communism and the slaughter of those deemed to be enemies of “progress”. The French Revolution, an earlier incarnation of atheistic progressivism and the progenitor of communism, had led to the invention of the guillotine as the efficient and effective instrument of the Great Terror and its rivers of blood. The gas chamber, the Gulag and the guillotine are the direct consequence of the failure to uphold the Christian concept of human equality and the freedom it enshrines. In our own time, the same failure to accept and uphold human equality has led to babies in the womb being declared subhuman, or untermenschen, without any protection in law from their being killed at the whim of their mothers.

Apart from the connection between freedom and equality, the other aspect of freedom enshrined by Christianity is the freedom of the will and the consequences attached to it. If we are free to act and are not merely slaves to instinct as the materialists claim, we have to accept that we are responsible for our choices and for their consequences.

Before proceeding to the paradoxical relationship between freedom and responsibility, let’s return to the philosophical ramifications of materialism, which is to say the removal of God from the picture of reality. Materialists are forced, if they are honest enough to follow the logic of their own first principles, to believe that none of us are free but that we are all slaves to our biologically determined instincts. For all such materialists, commonly known in today’s jargon as the new atheists, there is no such thing as freedom. It is an illusion. Considering the historical record of old atheists, such as the terrorists of the French Revolution, the communist revolution and the Third Reich, it is not likely that these new atheists, with their belief that we are all slaves to our genes, will prove any better in the defence of freedom. Why should they defend something that they don’t believe exists?

In contrast to the atheists’ philosophical acceptance of slavery, the insistence of Christians that we are all equal and that we all possess free will can be seen as truly liberating. Yet the paradoxical reality is that freedom is not free. It comes at a price. As already stated, freedom is inseparable from responsibility. If we want to reap the rewards of our good choices we must be prepared to pay the cost of our bad ones. It is for this reason that Edmund Burke insisted, quite correctly, that liberty must be limited in order to be possessed. If liberty is not limited it will be lost, or, to put the matter another way, the taking of liberties by some leads to the taking of liberties from others. Rapists and murderers and thieves should expect to pay heavily for the abuse of their freedom and for the taking of the freedom of those with whom they took liberties.

This is all very well and may be taken to be self-evident. Yet the whole of contemporary society and the whole of contemporary politics seem to be based on a denial of this fact. On the so-called “left” of the political spectrum the philosophy of the libertine is in the ascendant. This is the belief that we should be able to do what we like with our bodies and the bodies of others and to hell with the consequences. If we become pregnant, we can kill the baby. If children are abused by dysfunctional parents doing their own thing in dysfunctional relationships, so be it. Nothing, least of all children in the womb or in the home, must get in the way of the right of “adults” to do what they want with their lives and their bodies. Children are the new untermenschen. Broken in mind by the broken homes and broken relationships of their libertine parents, they are the forgotten ones. They are voteless and voiceless in a culture of death in which they are increasingly seen as an expensive inconvenience. This was the sense in which Oscar Wilde lamented that anarchy was Freedom’s own Judas, betraying liberty with a lustful kiss.

So much for the libertines of the so-called “left”. On the so-called “right,” as a so-called alternative to left-wing libertines, are the right-wing libertarians, who support the freedom of pornographers to corrupt everyone they touch, the freedom of drug pushers to deal death to vulnerable youngsters, and the freedom of global corporations to rule the world unhampered by political or economic constraint.

The libertines believe in Big Government to ensure that they can continue to take liberties by taking the liberties of others, specifically in recent years by taking the liberties of Christians who wish to live in accordance with their anti-libertine consciences. The libertarians, on the other hand, believe that Big Business should be left free to use the bullying powers of the economies of scale to destroy small businesses. Libertarians believe that huge corporations should be free to take liberties by taking the liberties of small corporations, turning downtown into ghost-town.

Faced with the choice between the libertine and the libertarian we should echo the words of Mercutio and call down a curse upon both their houses. Instead of choosing between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, or Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber, we should choose the faith that leads to true and lasting freedom. After all, as an idiot[2] once said in an entirely different context, we have nothing to lose but our chains.

Books by Dr. Pearce may be found in in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from the The St. Austin ReviewThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


1. G. K. Chesterton, The Thing, London: Sheed & Ward, 1939, p. 16.

2. Actually two idiots: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto (1848).

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8 replies to this post
  1. Mr. Pierce, you are too kind to the contemporary enemies of freedom to imply that their cause is the result of a deep and honest meditation on Hegel or Nietzsche. I have, in my short life, yet to meet a man or woman who can give as intelligent a defense of liberalism, socialism, the administrative welfare state or even communism as the erudite and well educated gentlemen of conservative temper for whom good manners dictate the need to first study and ponder an idea before refuting it.

    All “leftists” I have ever encountered have been animated by either resentment and a sense of entitlement (this is usually the case for loud protesters who rail against having to work for a living), or the conflation of personal unreflective desire with freedom (in this view, government ensures freedom by meeting our fancies and desires for free this and free that).

    I have yet to meet an atheist who is anything but a cross anticleric whose opinion of the Church is formed by reading the popular press articles about phedophiles rather than by the actual experience of a liturgical year in the Church. I have especially yet to meet a Nietzchean atheist or a communist with whom I can sit down and discuss Hegel and Kojeve. While I have encountered very good liberal writers who were also atheists, they seem to have all been educated 60 years ago, when apparently it was necessary to read, discuss and think before formulating an opinion.

    I question the presumption that the “other side” has any real intellectual clout going for it. I say this with sadness as certainly there is much of interest in the non Christian literature and thought of western and non western tradition.

    • Mr. Rieth: I do not know how “short” your life has been, but please allow me to expand your horizons just this much–I am an atheist who is not a “cross anticleric” and whose atheism has not been shaped by popular press articles about pedophile priests. I have spent many liturgical years in the church (if you’ll grant the Episcopal Church that status)–they were some of the best years of my life, and I have not a negative word to say about the people I met there or the experiences I had. However, I did not meet God, despite my hope of doing so–and that, in a nutshell, is the source of my atheism. I suppose I could just have gone looking for God in a different church; in fact, I’m still looking (I believe atheists are allowed that freedom), but I’m fairly sure that, to paraphrase Pogo, “We have met our God and he is us.” I could of course be wrong; just as you could be wrong to dismiss atheists and leftists (and their motives) so cavalierly.

  2. Mr. Pearce: Your piece deserves a much longer and more thoughtful response than I can provide. However, allow me to question one of your points and to suggest the matter may be more complex than you assert: that being, your insistence that Christianity teaches that humans are “free” and possess something called “free will”. The doctrine of Original Sin complicates this claim if it does not actually contradict it; moreover, the New Testament makes it abundantly clear that humans face a choice–we must be either “slaves to sin” or “slaves to righteousness” / “slaves to Christ”. I see no room there for the “freedom” of which you speak; such “freedom” was long considered, in the Christian understanding, mere “license”.

  3. Mr. Shifflett, I’m not sure specifically what Mr. Pearce’s take would be on the following, but the Bible, which is the Word of God, teaches what Luther called “the bondage of the will”.

    We do have a “free will” (or perhaps better, “free agency”) in the sense that we are free to make choices, but our will is bound to an extent by our nature. Thus a person who is not born again (regenerated) by God is unable to exercise his free will to believe in and love Jesus Christ. It goes against his sinful nature. That’s why Jesus said one “must be born again” to even see the kingdom of God, let alone believe in its King.

    To illustrate, I am “free” to eat ground glass from a broken window pane, but I find it repulsive, and so CANNOT bring myself to do it. It goes against something in my nature. I cannot because I will not, and I will not because it’s against my “nature”. My “free will” is irrelevant, though real.

    But when a person is “born again”, they can’t NOT believe in Jesus Christ. It is the only “natural” thing to do with one’s new heart and nature.

    I say all that to say this: Read the Gospel of John prayerfully. And the Pauline Epistles. Only by exposure to the good news, even re-exposure (or perhaps remembrance of former exposure), has God chosen to regenerate His people.

    The good news (gospel) is that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, was buried, and rose again from the dead. And whoever believes in Him, believes that good news, and he shall be saved, forgiven, and declared righteous by God, forever to have eternal life.

    I pray that will be you.

    • Terry: thanks for your kind response and your concern. I have read the gospels and the epistles, but could no doubt benefit from reading them over with an open mind and an open heart. My understanding remains that the bondage of my will–whether stemming from Original Sin or simply from being born into a sinful culture and living a sinful life–can only be released by the unmerited and gratuitously-given grace of God; but I can certainly follow your prescription as a way to better prepare myself to receive that gift of grace. In the meantime, you and I should both avoid eating ground glass…

  4. Mr. Shifflett, thank you for sharing; I do indeed consider it an expansion of my horizons. For the sake of clarity, I myself was an atheist from the age of 17 to about 19, after which I spent a decade wherein I can fairly say my relationship with God was like the weather: at times we shared the benefits of clear skies and sunshine, other times we were lost to one another in a tempest or frigid in our relations as people tend to be when it is freezing outside. I am tempted to say that given your hope of meeting God, you may have actually done so if your effort and the outcome were sincere. Thomas a Kempos’ quote from Imitation of Christ comes to mind:

    “When thou think’st I am far from thee, I am often nearest, And nearest, I am furthest”

    As for cavalier dismissal of leftist atheists and their motives: this is always a risk in politics, that we too quickly dismiss rather than discuss, or stereotype rather than learn. Still, I was writing about my general experiences.

    On that note, with regard to your second post, this problem of slavery to sin vs slavery to Christ (or virtue) is something I also struggled with and in a sense still do. Here are some thoughts on how I dealt with the matter: First of all, the effectual truth, especially in modern times, is that we are truly free to choose with regard to our comportment towards Christ. There is certainly nothing stopping us from getting up at any time and walking away from our faith, nothing but habit which while often effective in preventing change, cannot be considered binding in the coercive sense.

    So where then does this potential feeling that we are slaves in Christ come from? The only answer, as far as I can tell, is from our conscience. For if, attending Church, praying and professing Christianity, we find ourselves at the same time with a sense that deep inside we are betraying ourselves, that we are being “forced” as it were to let go of things we hold dear, then under such circumstances we can indeed imagine that Christianity is a lunatic creed pinning us into slavery to sin or to Christ. This feeling might be augmented by the notion of Original Sin you mentioned, which tends to make us think that what constitutes our desires is essentially our sin, and this feeling of self betrayal is in fact our “old man” still bound to sin battling with our “new man” struggling to bond himself to Christ. Where, we may wonder, are we? Just a plaything of God and the Devil in a spiritual tug of war?

    But take a step back and behold how essentially pagan and politheistic this view is. Christianity is not some Greek tragedy wherein the gods use us as play things. The moment it appears this way, I recall the words of the Jesuit Nuno tovar de Lemos, who wrote that if you define God as anything but absolute love, then you are not defining God, at least not the Christian God.

    Now certainly a God who would put Man into a trap, where life is one of two kinds of slavery is not a loving God. By this test alone there must be something rather not Christian about the doctrinal concept you note. Freedom is the human condition, Christ merely wants us to be conscious of it and desire to use it with a view to our happiness.. Now if this causes consternation in some men, it is not on account of Christ, and perhaps not on account of sin, but rather on account of a misunderstanding of moral accounting and confession.

    I do not know what the practices of Episcopalians are, but Catholic practice is tied to a habitual moral accounting in the process of confession and penance. While we have the Decalogue as a good guidepost, it is our reason and conscience which applies it to our personal lives, and the practice of confession and penance refine our ability to do so if we treat confession as adults, not children.

    Remember what CS Lewis wrote about sin: that within sin which is the source of some human joy is from God. As Screwtape rather amusingly puts it, despite scientific progress, Hell has been as yet incapable of producing a single happy emotion. So you see that even in sin, there is God and there is a way to God.

    As soon as we realize that God truly accepts us as we are, free to turn our backs, to move closer, to stand at this or that angle, to wade into whatever depth we are prepared for, then this doctrinal problem you mention seems, I think, to disappear.

  5. It is a pleasure indeed to find Mr Pearce on this website. Not to quote GKC at his own fine biographer, but Chesterton elsewhere makes a good point about how limits foster creativity too, and not just liberty. A poem to be written on the funny topic of a man with big feet is easier to compose than a general and unspecified assignment to just write a poem. God may have understood this first, constrained in creation by His own innate goodness. These wise paradoxes must confound ideologues, devotees of what Dr Kirk scorned as defecated reason, but they work for us!

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