Van Ens: Unchecked personal freedoms make the US unhealthy
Patriotic Americans protect personal liberties preserved in the Bill of Rights. When citizens’ freedoms are pushed to the extreme, however, such tactics produce “hyper-individualism,” warns columnist David Brooks. “Hyper-individualism defines freedom as absence from restraint,” he writes in “The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.” It is freedom turned inward in which “my rights” replace preserving our neighbor’s rights.
What does hyper-individualism act like in our lives? Insurrectionists who rioted inside the U.S. Capitol last Jan. 6 practiced it. So do anti-vaxxers who shun COVID-19 vaccinations and declare, “Who are you to tell me what to do with my body?”
Such self-proclaimed guardians of personal rights accept what the New York Times labels “deeply rooted suspicious myths, fueled by … misinformation and distrust of pharmaceutical companies and the government, [which have] led many to reject COVID vaccines as well as preventive measures like masks and quarantines.”
Musician Bruce Springsteen uses blunt, graphic, blue-collar language to describe pursuing personal freedom gone bad, like nutritious milk turning rancid.
Although he grew up in the 1960’s “Free to Be Myself” revolution, Springsteen never quite bought into practicing freedom that lacked restraints. “I sensed there was a great difference between unfettered personal license and real freedom,” Springsteen declares in his memoir, “Born to Run.” “Many of the groups that had come before us, many of my heroes, had mistaken one for the other and it’d ended in poor form. I felt personal license was to freedom as masturbation was to sex. It’s not bad, but it’s not the real deal [authentic].”
Springsteen and Brooks both resonate with the Apostle Paul, who warns of adopting a cross-eyed view of personal freedom that fixates our gaze on our noses and blurs responsibility for preserving our neighbors’ rights.
“There will come times of stress,” writes the apostle Paul in II Timothy 3:1-5. “For people will be lovers of self … reckless, swollen with conceit … holding the form of religion but denying its power.”
“Many ideas become false when taken to the extreme,” David Brooks states. Yes, our personal rights are precious and deserve protection. Yes, after these rights are ignored, they are often taken from us. Yes, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution guarantee protection from government overreach. Yet, be on the alert when self-seeking reduces working for the Common Good.
Today, fierce disagreements rage in the U.S. over being forced to get vaccinated because of government mandates.
“When claims of individual rights clash head-on with public health measures designed to urgently save lives and to protect the larger community, who gets to make the key decisions,” asks David Oshinsky, author of the book, “Polio: An American Story,” which won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for history. He wonders, “How far can the government go, and where does the authority lie in America’s complicated federal system?”
Rioters at the Capitol took to heart an adage their political hero grandly announced when he accepted the Republican nomination for president in 1964. Arizona’s Sen. Barry Goldwater then endorsed a distorted view of personal freedom, stating: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Articulating Goldwater’s take on freedom at the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan, 6, then-President Donald Trump whipped up the crowd. Trump pushed protecting freedom to the extreme by falsely asserting the vote for President-Elect Joe Biden was fraudulent. He asserted, “You have to show strength, and you have to be strong. We have come to demand that Congress do the right thing and only count the electors who have been lawfully slated, lawfully slated …. And we fight. We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
“So, let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue,” declared then President Trump. Rioters were not acting patriotically by allowing violent emotions to dictate their rash behavior. They took personal freedom to the extreme by interrupting a constitutional peaceful transfer of presidential power.
Their aim “…wasn’t to roam the halls and yell. It was something grave and dark: to disrupt and prevent the constitutionally mandated counting of the Electoral College votes in the 2020 presidential elections that was scheduled to occur,” wrote The Wall Street Journal’s columnist Peggy Noonan in a blistering critique. “That act of tabulating is more than two centuries old, [it] formulizes and validates the election outcome, physically represents the peaceful transfer of power, and has never been stopped or disrupted. What happened on 1/6 was an attempted assault on the constitutional order.”
Refusing to get vaccinated is an unhealthy exercise of unrestrained personal freedom stretched too far. In 1905, the Supreme Court sided with governing officials in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who ordered all residents get smallpox vaccinations. Some refused, arguing their personal rights were trampled underfoot by intrusive government mandates.
The Supreme Court disagreed. Writing for the seven-member majority, Justice John Marshall Harlan ruled against unrestrained freedom. “The liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction [authority] does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint. There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good,” declared Justice Harlan.
He continued, declaring restraints shape the Constitution that protect citizens who gather in communities. The Constitution is anchored in “the fundamental principle of the social compact … that all shall be governed by certain laws for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people, and not for the profit, honor, or private interests of any one man, [citizen] family or class of men [citizens].
Freedom without restraint is no liberty at all.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (TheLivingHistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.