By Carol Frenier
Everywhere in America the principle of free expression and free action is under attack. Freedom for gays to marry, for example, has morphed into punishment for businesses if their owners decline to participate in gay weddings. The presumption that racism pervades American society has become the justification for college students to shut down so-called “hate” speech. Obsession with educational equity is reducing our school curricula to the lowest common denominator and depriving communities and parents, and even teachers, of any real control over the education of their children. And both adults and children are shamed into giving up their privacy in bathrooms and shower rooms to avoid being labeled transphobic.
None of this is new in human history. Five hundred years ago Martin Luther, largely credited with the Reformation that freed some Roman Catholic worshipers from strict adherence to Catholic dogma, had his own problems with followers who were quick to impose an oppressive new orthodoxy based on Luther’s beliefs. To his credit, as Eric Metaxas writes in his new biography, Luther “took pains to point out the similarities between the bondage of works” in the Roman Catholic Church and “the bondage of other kinds of works” that his own movement, and subsequent religious sects, sought to impose.
And so there is a paradox: The long-term impact of Luther’s revolt, says Metaxas, is that “We live in a world where even though someone might be right and know he is right, he also knows that to try to force his views is as bad as holding the wrong views.” This, says Metaxas, is the revolution “that is the father and mother of all revolutions.” But even as this idea has spread throughout the West and become embedded in our own Constitution, we still struggle with it. In all times and places it is hard for human beings to resist the temptation to force their latest “good” on everyone else.
Despite the current dismal outlook for personal liberty in America, there is some good news for freedom lovers. For example, Notre Dame recently announced that artificial contraceptives would no longer be required coverage under the university’s insurance plans. Regardless of your personal views on contraception, it was never right to coerce religious institutions, or even individuals, into buying insurance coverage for contraception against their conscience. Clearly the desire to free women from their past inability to control their reproductive cycles drove the authors of the mandates to write a new oppressive orthodoxy into the health care rules.
Given the intensity of the left’s frustration with Trump and dislike for all things conservative, I am concerned about how much of this new type of oppressive orthodoxy we are going to see in the upcoming legislative session in Vermont. We need to watch carefully the tendency of bills to surface that, step by step, increase the control of government over our private lives, especially if that control is based on such amorphous grounds as “equity” or “tolerance” or “diversity.”
School boards and communities already have been through a grueling and deeply dissatisfying experience with Act 46, in which promises of protection for school choice quickly eroded. Non-government preschool providers already have been forced from the field in droves because new regulations are deliberately and prohibitively expensive. The legislature last year ruled that single-stall bathrooms must be unisex and that school personnel can refer students to counseling without their parent’s consent. To some, these instances of government overreach may seem innocuous, but why should most of it be the legislature’s business to begin with? And what’s next? We are in danger of being like the proverbial frog in the slowly heating water.
Carol Frenier is a resident of Chelsea, Vermont.