Senator Ben Sasse emphasized the importance of protecting religious freedom and defending the rights of communities to which we do not personally belong at last week’s symposium on “Religious Freedom and the Common Good” at Georgetown University.
In a recent conversation about international religious liberty, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse commented, “The U.S. government is not nearly the clarion voice…that is has been in moments past, and that we need to become again in the future.” Sass’ extrapolation of this assertion underline his own voice’s increasingly crucial place in American conservative thought. With a Harvard dissertation on the rise of the American religious right (and a St. John’s MA in great books and a Yale BA), Sasse has the academic grounding to identify the practical consequences of the ideas that have shaped, and currently shape, American public life. The consequences, he insists, of a more muted American voice on matters of religious liberty are desperate.
Sass’ comments came during an address at the Religious Freedom Project of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. In the context of the daylong symposium’s focus on “Religious Freedom and the Common Good”, the senator made the case that the promotion of religious freedom abroad is essential to the cultivation of peace, justice, and order across the globe. The crisis, however, is that America’s ability to sustain any long-term promotion of religious freedom anywhere else hinges on our dwindling ability, or willingness, to uphold its value domestically. If we fail to recognize—or remember—that religious liberty is a centerpiece of the American experiment in self-governance at home, we will be hamstrung to credibly champion its promotion abroad.
From a conservative lens, this is a crisis. The reason why is related to the purposes of government. On this question, there is a deepening conflict of visions between the American left and the right. The progressive vision seems increasingly coalesced around the idea that “government is what we all do together.” Such a view collapses public life and the state into a single thing, and suggests that government is the proper center of our collective lives. There is a conservative species of this error, Sasse reminds us, found in the belief that the promotion of “democracy” or “free elections” is the essential thing sufficient for bringing about a more liberal world order. But this, too, over-emphasizes the role of the government in promoting human flourishing.
Drawing on Aristotelian notions of human flourishing—expressed in the Constitution as the “pursuit of Happiness”—Sasse insisted that the government has, at best, an indirect role in promoting human goods. Happiness does not come from a government program or system of governance, rather it emerges from a belief that you, as an individual, make a difference in someone’s life, it emerges from having deep friendships and folks with whom you empathize and for whom you care, it is rooted in the intimacy of family, and it is found in the possession of meaningful work—human beings, made in the image of God, are built for labor, it is hardwired into us. Truly meaningful work, for its part, is found in promoting the flourishing of others. All of this is to say that government is not what we all do together but, rather, community is.
Whereas in the progressive view, there is too often nothing standing between the individual and the state, Sasse reminds us that in the conservative view there is a great gob of essential things stuffed in between the individual and state—communities of freely associating people dedicated to one another’s flourishing. Community, in the American mind, is where national identity is formed, it is in community that American individuals are catechized, trained, in the idea of the American experiment.
It is not blood or land that makes an American, but a shared commitment to defend even those, especially those, with whom we disagree. In fact, the disagreement is essential. When it comes to ideas—particularly those dealing with moral values, beliefs about God, or human purpose—every individual or collection of individuals will, at some level, find themselves in one kind of minority or another. The American experiment with religious liberty has much to do with finding ways to live these differences together. “The entire purpose of America,” Sasse provocatively suggests, “is to give you the freedom to hurt someone else’ feelings and neither of you when you argue should fear you’re going to be subject to violence.”
In light of this, the proper role of government is not, itself, to bring people together but, rather, government is about “protecting people from violence so that they can live full lives…so that they can go out and debate the really important things.” Government does not give people the rights to express their religious views freely—these rights precede government. Government, merely, acknowledges these rights and maintains the social conditions necessary to honor them.
Such commitments, however, are under assault. Many Americans are no longer comfortable with dissenting voices. Sasse cites a report in which nearly half of all Americans under the age of 35 believe the 1st Amendment is dangerous. To many Americans, “religious liberty” has become a euphemism for bigotry—they see it as the refuge of the pious who use their religious views as another form of identify politics. It’s a large part of what is behind the push for safe space across American college campuses.
Sasse, on the other hand, insists that the American experiment will fail if the prevention of offense becomes the new standard for civility and community value. The only way to prevent offense is to stifle dissenting viewpoints. Stifling viewpoints, of course, is not the work of a community of mutually supportive neighbors, it is the work of despots and dictators.
Against the dictators and despots of the world, Sasse reminds us that America’s founders knew that the antidote to speech we do not like is not the suppression of that speech but, rather, counter-speech. Persuasion, not oppression, is the manner to change minds. “The best thing we can do to create a more stable world,” Sasse asserts, is “to see the promotion of a more vibrant civil society, where there is economic development, where there is promotion of free assembly and freedom of religion, where there is recognition of the rights of women and more intellectual diversity.”
The means to do this is not, directly, to press for this or that system of government, but rather to model and press for a state of mind—a willingness to allow for differences of opinion and the free exchange of ideas. Democracy and elections, Sasse observes, are capable of extinguishing the very rights we meant for them to promote.
It is only by a community of neighbors dedicated to the religious freedom of their neighbors that those goods essential to human flourishing have a chance of taking root. The American experiment presumes a power beyond the government in which human dignity is rooted. Sasse believes that we must be willing to “revive, recover and reteach” these principles in which the country’s founding documents are grounded. It is in this “grand claim” that all “people are created with dignity” that the risk of individual differences can be accepted without danger and the rights of our individual neighbors to hold them can be defended without prejudice.