Our nation “has entered an age of post-constitutional soft tyranny.” Mark R. Levin — who is most widely known for being a talk-radio host and best-selling author, but who is also the president of the Landmark Legal Foundation and a veteran of the Reagan Justice Department — makes this assertion in his new book, The Liberty Amendments. No sooner had the book been released than the New Mexico Supreme Court offered additional evidence of the trend, deciding that photographers who believe that same-sex marriage isn’t marriage, and therefore want to opt out of taking pictures at same-sex weddings, can’t.
The court ruled that it is “the price of citizenship” that, although you can believe whatever you want, you can’t act as if you take certain beliefs all that seriously. It would seem the position of the New Mexico Supreme Court is that believing men and women are expressly made for the institution of marriage, for one another — that their very biology suggests as much, naturally ordered toward the creative gifts that are children — is somewhat akin to believing in unicorn gods who will come to set us free. That is: utterly absurd. Believe it in private if you wish; but don’t ever try to operate in the world outside your active imagination or your codependent church with your crazy beliefs in mind.
But then, this is how the soft tyranny develops. Reporters trip over one another to refer to Bradley Manning as “she” because he asked them to. Loving a brother who is suffering doesn’t require lying to him. Increasingly, though, lies are not only expected but mandated. That’s not love. That’s not freedom. That’s where a dictatorship of relativism and cultural delusion lead us. And our very laws are coming to reflect this.
In his book, Levin turns to Alexis de Tocqueville to help Americans today reflect on where we are and where we are going. The country has changed. Levin credits Tocqueville with prescience and quotes a passage about “soft despotism” from Democracy in America: “It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is shepherd.”
Levin’s book is no academic exercise. He indicts America today: “Social engineering and central planning are imposed without end, since the governing masterminds, drunk with their own conceit and pomposity, have wild imaginations and infinite ideas for reshaping society and molding man’s nature in search of the ever-elusive utopian paradise. Their clumsy experiments and infantile pursuits are not measured against any rational standard. Their preciousness and sanctimony are justification enough.”
Many of these “masterminds” may do so with the best of intentions. But in redefining and misappropriating words, they insist we all must follow new legal fictions. The law has become a tyrannical manipulator. In the quest to dictate right belief, our self-appointed guardians have lost respect for human dignity, insisting that affirmation and complicity are required for true equality. Law is no longer an impartial rule but an ideological enforcer.
Levin quotes more Tocqueville: “It would seem as if the rulers of our time sought only to use men in order to make things great; I wish that they would try a little more to make great men; that they would set less value on the work and more upon the workman; that they would never forget that a nation cannot long remain strong when every man belonging to it is individually weak; and that no form or combination of social polity has yet been devised to make an energetic people out of a community of pusillanimous and enfeebled people.” Tocqueville might suggest that we respect a photographer’s conscience rights rather than insist that her work affirm a radical cultural shift.
In the New Mexico case, one justice’s concurring opinion made the problem clear. He wrote that the Christian couple with the photography business, Jonathan and Elaine Huguenin, “are free to think, to say, to believe, as they wish; they may pray to the God of their choice and follow those commandments in their personal lives wherever they lead. The Constitution protects the Huguenins in that respect and much more. But there is a price, one that we all have to pay somewhere in our civic life.”
What are we going to do about it? You will recall that Tocqueville liked a lot of what he saw here. What he liked best is the civil society he saw flourishing. Today, that civil society is waning and threatened. When the government says that religious beliefs that conflict with its mandates on health insurance, in the realm of contraception, sterilization, and even abortion, are not fit for the public square, and when it subjects to punitive fines any employer who insists on acting on his beliefs, then it discourages service. It marginalizes a cast of characters a democratic republic needs. As much as some may believe they have found the perfect formula for happiness in the libertine realm, moral and even biological coherence does have its upsides. We would do well to leave some room for that.
The Founding, Levin reflects, sought to figure out “how best to preserve the civil society in a world of imperfect people and institutions.” That’s our civic mission today, if we are to be good stewards of the gifts we have been given by God and our Founding Fathers, in the exceptional experiment in freedom flourishing that they made their heritage.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.