The last few years have been good for religious freedom in America’s courts. They have seen the repudiation of the problematic Lemon test, the preservation of a nearly century-old war memorial, and the vindication of the rights of parents who send their children to religious schools. This is in addition to dozens of other cases that have similarly protected members of the military, workers in the workplace, students in schools, and houses of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic. But as important as legal victories are for the future of freedom in the United States—and they are significant—they remain “parchment barriers” that by themselves will never be enough to preserve individual freedoms for long.
As John Witherspoon warned, “even the best constitution will be ineffectual” against “the general profligacy and corruption” of a society. It is thus alarming that the last few years have not been as good for liberty in the wider culture. Anti-Semitic hate crimes have reached an all-time high, more and more younger Americans are abandoning religious communities, and large numbers of Americans now view religion negatively. If liberty is going to survive, advocacy for it cannot be either in the political realm or in the culture—it must be both in the political realm and in the culture as complementary aspects of a single endeavor.
Liberty, wrote Lord Acton, “is the unity, the only unity of the history of the world.” His distinguished biographer, Gertrude Himmelfarb expounded, “Whatever institutions or forms of government have been devised through the ages, the idea of liberty has remained.” Acton and Himmelfarb illuminated a truth that is often difficult to appreciate: human freedom is an assumption of every political system. Every political system from ancient to modern has recognized its existence by either seeking to maximize it or seeking to eradicate it.
Every generation must remain vigilant in the cause of liberty. Even a brief lapse can lead to a cascading erosion of the fundamental commitments that give credibility to the defense of liberty, inspire the appreciation of it by those who enjoy it, and make it attractive to those who don’t. If one generation fails to preserve liberty, subsequent generations will find themselves faced with a formidable struggle on two fronts. First, it will be difficult to restore liberty in and through political institutions, and, second, it will be challenging to combat the malaise of a society that has come to accept an impoverished understanding of it. “Good things,” wrote Sir Roger Scruton, “are easily destroyed, but not easily created.”
These two facets of the work to preserve and, when necessary, restore liberty are not independent endeavors. They are complementary. In an open, pluralistic society, citizens must approach the subject in a coordinated and systematic way to preserve liberty for future generations and to restore it where it has been lost. What is accomplished in one generation is easily lost in the next if that generation’s struggle to preserve it is not approached in a balanced and holistic way.
“A political system presupposes a civilization,” wrote English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott on the eve of World War II. A culture is prior to a political system both conceptually and temporally. And a political system is a product of a culture. It is true that the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, and the Supreme Court’s opinion in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District are products of specific political orders and political actors, but the actual content of these documents emerges from a “stratum of social thought far too deep to be influenced by the actions of politicians.” In fact, each of these examples provides a measure of cultural and political context for each successive document. Without the Magna Carta, there would be no Bill of Rights; without the First Amendment, there would be no Kennedy.
It is not merely in the intellectual preparation and life experiences of those who draft these and similar documents that are dependent on the cultures in which they arise. All the layers of debate, sources of wisdom, national myths, collective triumph, collective trauma, and myriad other influences distinct to a particular place and time give rise to these and other political artifacts.
To fail to advocate for liberty in the political sphere means that cultural advocacy is easily snuffed out by those able to wield power against it. But when advocating for a new law or regulation or outcome in court, advocates must be aware of and appeal to the dense cultural fabric that provides context to the issues in question.
Advocacy in the political realm can take a variety of forms. Some lobby elected officials or administrative agencies so that our laws properly respect and protect freedom. Others, like our organization, First Liberty Institute, litigate on behalf of those whose freedom has been in some way violated. This type of work is pragmatic—not in the sense that those who engage in it lack integrity, but in the sense that it is focused on the mechanical and technical aspects of how government power is exercised in the pursuit of a just society that is distinguished by liberty. It often involves advocacy for a specific state of affairs—a particular judgment, a particular provision in the law.
But why should work on behalf of the cause of liberty be limited to political venues only? Should we not seek to influence that dense fabric—the culture from which political and other institutions emerge—for the sake of the cause of liberty? To fail to advocate for liberty in the culture means that political victories today will be short-lived.
While the role of government is to protect the contours of liberty and vindicate the rights of citizens, it is through civic institutions like the family, the church, and other voluntary associations that citizens can exercise their liberty. It is this realm that is the concern of cultural advocacy. At its best, cultural advocacy for liberty is principled because it does not seek any particular state of affairs. Rather, it seeks to equip those engaged in prudential decision-making—whether that decision is how to vote in elections, how to direct philanthropy, how to construct laws, or how and why to litigate—with the intellectual tools to understand what Oakeshott calls the “political culture” in which those decisions are made.
To do so, cultural advocacy must teach citizens to engage the deep “stratum of social thought” that should rightly inform these decisions. Culture is dense and layered with a provenance that is not always easy to trace and almost always contested by different groups. Wading into such complexity is not a simple task, but one that helps us to understand the roots and shape the orientation of our social order in ways that advance and enhance liberty.
If culture is as complex as this, how can we hope to influence it? Once articulated, destructive ideas become a part of Oakeshott’s “stratum of social thought.” They become impossible to eradicate and difficult to mitigate. Cultural advocacy is as complex as the culture itself. This type of work in our organization seeks to inspire curiosity about the nature of our civilization, the foundational commitments that have shaped our institutions, and clear thinking about how departure from these commitments erodes the basis of liberty itself. We should aim to equip our constituencies to do the best and most durable forms of this work in very ordinary places—around dinner tables, in conversations between friends, at work, in religious congregations, and in classrooms. Dozens of small victories in mundane places can gain momentum to aggregate into culture-shaping, civilization-affirming movements.
To engage in only one of these facets of the cause of liberty can easily lead to a myopic vision that devalues the other. The ideal is a symbiotic approach in which political advocacy protects the space for cultural advocacy to be realized and good cultural advocacy makes political advocacy increasingly natural, principled, and successful—and in at least some cases helps solve social problems before they become political or worse—partisan. A coordinated approach that appreciates and acknowledges the strengths of each facet of the work allows for strategic decision-making to determine whether issues are best addressed by one or the other approach which hopefully results in more secure victories in the long term.
Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian and general, is credited with saying, “The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.” The virtues that make for good scholars and the virtues that make for good warriors are not always identical, but the proximity of scholars and warriors can help to temper the characteristic vices of either. Cooperation between the cultural and the political advocates for liberty allows for holistic, integrated advocacy for the cause of liberty in hopes that liberty, what Acton described as “the delicate fruit of a mature civilization,” is preserved for the benefit of future generations.