‘Social liberalism’ versus liberty

BY PHILIP VANDER ELST

“Liberty! What crimes are committed in your name!” declared Madame Roland, one of the most prominent victims of the French Revolution, as she was about to be guillotined in 1793 during the Jacobin Terror. Today, in Britain and other liberal democracies, liberty is increasingly threatened from within by the failure of so many contemporary ‘liberals’ to understand its true meaning, purpose and value, as well as its implications and preconditions. As a result, modern ‘liberalism’ is riddled with internal contradictions.

The most prominent example of this are social revolutionaries who champion ‘sexual liberation’ and the deconstruction of the traditional heterosexual nuclear family, whilst at the same time demanding curbs on free speech and economic freedom to ‘protect’ gays and other sexual minorities from being offended by opposition and criticism. They do so, moreover, in the name of ‘social liberalism’, a label they proudly embrace whilst at the same time denying the right of dissent of religious believers and cultural conservatives. Similarly, a woman’s ‘right to choose’ an abortion is regarded as an enlightened flagship ‘liberal’ cause, but the right to life of a helpless unborn baby is denied. Yet what could be more illiberal and anti-progressive in the true meaning of these terms than the denial of protection to the weakest of all human beings?

Another internal contradiction within ‘social liberalism’ is its attitude to religion and the State. The old classical liberal tradition understood and celebrated the religious roots of freedom, and emphasised the need to limit the coercive power of Government in order to preserve personal liberty and the vitality of civil society. Present day ‘liberals’, by contrast, see the State in much more positive light, as a welcome instrument of ‘progressive’ social change, precisely because it gives social reformers the power to overcome all obstacles and resistance to the achievement of their goals. Religious believers, by contrast, especially evangelical Christians, are increasingly seen in an entirely negative light, as people who hold ‘reactionary’ views opposed to the values of a ‘civilised’ society, and must therefore be marginalised.

We need to rediscover the true values of a free society

If, then, we wish to safeguard liberty, we need to rediscover the true values of a free society and the principal ideas sustaining it. And to do so, we cannot do better than to remind ourselves of some key insights of that old classical liberal tradition mentioned above.

The first and most important and forgotten insight is a religious one. We have a Divine Creator who is the true source of our being, and in whose image we are made.

Our post-Christian secular culture denies this reality, of course, but it was central to the thinking of nearly all the great classical liberal thinkers of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. To them, the fact that we are children of God, possessing the gifts of reason, conscience and free will, was an obvious truth with momentous implications for politics and society. It meant, in the first place, that as objects of God’s love, individuals are ends in themselves whose primary purpose is to bond with their Creator and each other, in harmony and love, and use their God-given gifts and talents to make the world a better place to live in. And for that to be possible, they must be free. Free to choose between good and evil, to accept or reject God, and decide what goals in life to pursue. Hence Jefferson’s logical insistence, in the American Declaration of Independence (1776), that we all have a God-given right “to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” which no government ought to be allowed to violate.

Personal liberty is not only an essential condition of moral growth and creative achievement; it is also an essential requirement for the pursuit of knowledge and truth, as Milton argued in the 17th century, and John Stuart-Mill did in his great essay On Liberty in 1859. Unless we are free to compare and discuss ideas, and to pursue different avenues of inquiry, we cannot grow in our understanding of life, society, and the world. This is especially important in religion, politics, and science. The more controversial the issue, the more wide-ranging its implications, the more we need to be free to listen to different points of view and form our own opinions. That is why it is essential that political correctness should not be allowed to reduce the ideological space within which it is permitted to debate homosexuality, Islam, the theory of evolution, man-made climate change, or any other contemporary ideological ‘hot potato.’

True liberalism not only emphasises the moral and spiritual importance of personal liberty; it also recognises the vital role of private property and economic freedom in the maintenance of a free and civilised society. Without financial independence, and access to alternative ‘platforms’ and sources of employment, provision, education and information, individuals cannot be secure in their enjoyment of civil liberty. That is why a free enterprise economy has such an important moral dimension. The existence of thousands of privately owned businesses, organisations, and charities, spreads resources and opportunities, and diffuses power, throughout society. As a result, the exercise of freedom of thought and speech is underpinned by privately financed media, think tanks, and political parties, as well as by privately financed schools and universities.

Government controlled economies, by contrast, undermine or destroy liberty because the State is a coercive institution whose monopolistic power cannot be resisted if it is overextended or abused. To quote Trotsky’s bitter verdict on Soviet Communism in 1937: “In a society in which the sole employer is the State, opposition means death by slow starvation. The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced by a new one: who does not obey shall not eat” – a lesson taught by every single Communist revolution of the last century, in every continent.

Western democracies like Britain are not, thankfully, totalitarian socialist societies, but our traditional liberties have been increasingly eroded by the growth of intrusive State regulation and employment laws aimed at preventing, in the name of ‘equality’ and ‘diversity’,  ‘discrimination’ by private individuals and organisations. The old liberal belief that personal liberty includes the right of individuals to use their own property and wealth, and engage in voluntary trade, as they see fit, is no longer recognised or valued by modern ‘social liberalism’. Instead, ‘social liberals’ believe it is morally praiseworthy to use the coercive power of government to enforce their vision of ‘equality’ and ‘diversity’ on the whole of society. Rather than relying on peaceful argument and voluntary persuasion to advance their cultural agenda, they threaten dissident individuals and minorities with fines and imprisonment, or the loss of their jobs, abandoning in the process the old liberal conviction that it is morally wrong to force people to accept views or behaviour they disagree with or find repugnant.

Given that freedom of thought and conscience is a necessary condition of all personal moral action and growth, true liberals should be resolutely opposed to the forcible imposition of politically correct ideological agendas through monopolistic State controlled education and health care. As John Stuart Mill famously argued in On Liberty, it is one thing for the State to insist that all children must be given an education, and to offer financial support for that purpose. It is quite another for the State to take into its own hands the provision of all or most schooling, and detailed control or regulation of the educational curriculum.

“That the whole or any large part of the education of the people should be in State hands,” wrote Mill, “ I go as far as any one in deprecating…A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government…it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body.”

Here again we see the stark contrast between the old classical liberal tradition and modern ‘social liberalism’. The former, alive to the danger to personal liberty of the extension and abuse of State power; the latter, welcoming what is effectively the nationalisation of education and the subordination of parental choice and rights to a policy agenda imposed by politically correct bureaucratic elites at central and local level – a process now occurring in nearly all western democracies in relation to sex education and related subjects, both in State schools and, where they exist, the increasingly regulated ‘independent’ sectors.

The damning evidence of social liberalism’s assault on liberty

Those who doubt the truthfulness of these assertions, and question the allegedly coercive and illiberal character of contemporary ‘social liberalism’ in Britain, should visit the websites and peruse the publications of the Newcastle based Christian Institute, and the London based charity, Christian Concern, where they will find the abundant and damning documentary evidence. They should also read two other recent studies documenting the growing assault of political correctness on freedom of thought and speech within our education system and cultural institutions. The first: Having Your Say: threats to free speech in the 21st century, edited by J.R. Shackleton, and published in 2021 by the Institute of Economic Affairs; and the second: Moralitis, A Cultural Virus, by Robert Oulds and Niall McCrae, published by the Bruges Group in 2020.

Social liberalism’s equally serious assault on personal freedom in the USA is similarly documented in chilling detail by David Horowitz, in Dark Agenda: the war to destroy Christian America (Humanix Books, 2018); and also by Tammy Bruce, in an earlier study entitled The New Thought Police: inside the Left’s assault on free speech and free minds (Three Rivers Press, 2003).

What is significant about these particular authors is that their testimony cannot be dismissed as that of bigoted died-in-the-wool conservatives. David Horowitz was one of the most prominent (now repentant) leaders of the American New Left and Anti-Vietnam War Movement in the 1960s, whilst Tammy Bruce is a leading American lesbian feminist activist, and a former president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) – the premier feminist organization in the United States.

To quote a passage from Tammy Bruce’s book, summarising her thesis and the copious evidence supporting it: “Thirty years ago, black, feminist, and gay civil-rights organizations were groups that a classical liberal – someone who values free speech and personal liberty – could be proud to be associated with. Not any longer. As the organized Left gained cultural power, it turned into a monster that found perpetual victimhood, combined with thought and speech control, the most convenient and efficient way to hold onto that power. Suddenly it was the Left, the protector of liberty, that was setting rules about what could and could not be said, or even thought. And because we do not give up our freedom willingly, the strategy of the left-wing establishment has become one of intimidation, backed up by legal force…Now, the slash-and-burn strategy against freedom of expression is the forte of the Left, its intrusiveness cloaked in concerns about racism, sexism, and homophobia.”

The truthfulness of this indictment is not only borne out by the evidence presented by Horowitz and Bruce, but also by another landmark study, The Homosexual Agenda, by Alan Sears and Craig Osten, (Broadman & Holman, USA, 2003). In this book, the authors reveal, with abundant chapter and verse, the extent to which militant gay activists have deliberately sought to use the power of the State to change public attitudes and enforce conformity with their practical demands. They also reveal the extent to which the gay lobby has been willing to employ ‘black propaganda’ to intimidate and silence its critics.

Here, for instance, are just two American examples of this two-pronged strategy documented by Sears and Osten, the first of which emphasises the strategic role of State control of education: “At a 1999 Gay, Lesbian, Straight, Educational Network (GLSEN) Conference in Atlanta, the following comments were made: ‘The fear of the Religious Right is that the schools of today are the governments of tomorrow. And you know what, they’re right’ and ‘If we do our jobs right, we’re going to raise a generation of kids who don’t believe the claims of the Religious Right.’

The second example highlighted by Sears and Osten shows the length to which militant homosexuals have been prepared to go to smear and beat down resistance to their agenda: “[In] a 1987 article titled ‘The Overhauling of Straight America’ and a 1989 book titled After the Ball…homosexual activists [Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen] laid out a six-point strategy to radically change America’s perception of homosexual behaviour. These six points [included]: ‘Portray gays as victims, not aggressive challengers’ and ‘Make gays look good’… and [more revealingly]: ‘We intend to make the anti-gays look so nasty that average Americans will want to disassociate themselves from such types.’ And if that wasn’t explicit enough, to quote Sears and Osten: “ In After the Ball [Kirk and Madsen went so far as to write]:‘Our primary objective regarding die-hard homo-haters of this sort [i.e. orthodox religious believers] is to cow and silence them.’

Whilst it would be wrong to suggest that all social liberals share the extreme views and objectives of militant gay activists like Kirk and Madsen, most of them seem incapable of believing that opposition to the demands of what is now referred to as the LGBTQ lobby, is based on anything more than irrational fears and prejudices. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

What, then, is the rational and libertarian case for adopting a tolerant but negative view of homosexuality and the wider claims and demands of the LGBTQ lobby? Why do so many people of all faiths and none, including millions of African and African-American Christians, believe that there is something wrong with homosexuality, and that whilst it is right that homosexual practice between consenting adults should be protected by law in a free society, its celebration and encouragement is undesirable? Does the contemporary western idol of sexual permissiveness really deserve our worship, or is it a false god whose worship is actually inimical to freedom?

Social liberalism’s abandonment of scientific truth and commonsense

The road back to sanity must begin with a renewed acknowledgment of what was once a universally recognised truth, namely, that whether you like to think of it as the pattern set by God or Nature, it is an undeniable fact that the human race is divided into two sexes, male and female, whose bodies are clearly complementary and designed to fit together for sexual reproduction. That such a self-evident truth should currently be denied, evaded, or ignored by the vociferous, intolerant, and increasingly influential transgender lobby, shows how far ‘social liberalism’ has lost all contact with scientific truth and common sense. Happily, however, this is at least one area of the culture war where sexual revolutionaries are currently meeting the most determined resistance, primarily from feminists rightly concerned about the threat posed by transgender ideology to women’s identity, rights, and ‘private spaces’. And if anyone doubts the reasonableness of the case against the transgender lobby, they should read Britain Editor at The Economist, Helen Joyce’s lucid, courageous, and impeccably researched book, Trans: when ideology meets reality, (Oneworld, 2021).

If, then, proper account is taken of the self-evident fact that the pattern set by God or Nature for human sexual interaction is heterosexual, it follows that the natural healthy family unit ought to be based on the love and mutual commitment to each other of a man and a woman, a mother and a father. This in turn implies that faithfulness in heterosexual marriage is not only a corollary of true love, but also the necessary glue holding it together and providing that secure and stable physical and emotional environment so vital to the proper nurture and upbringing of children. Furthermore, and not least important, this material and emotional security provides a bulwark against the outside world, a shelter within which children can find refuge from unwanted peer group pressure, and have the privacy and peace to develop their own interests and personalities. And here we come to the link between the traditional Judeo-Christian view of sex, marriage, and the family, and personal and political liberty.

The exercise and enjoyment of true freedom requires, at the personal level, both self-control and belief in an objective moral code – an absolute Right and Wrong. Without these two things we will always be ruled by our passions and desires, unable to resist the downward pull of our imperfect human nature. But if our capacity to resist temptation rests on our ability to choose between conflicting impulses and desires, in accordance with an internally digested moral code, that ‘inner freedom’ cannot flourish or be preserved in a culture which embraces moral relativism, declaring that all forms of sexuality and family structure are ‘equal’, and should therefore be ‘protected’ by law against all forms of criticism and ‘discrimination’.

A culture of sexual permissiveness and moral relativism is not only a threat to personal liberty, but also, ultimately, to political freedom, because it undermines and eventually destroys the moral self-discipline and cultural attitudes needed to sustain a free and civilised society. If people believe that individuals have the right to do anything they like in relation to sex and their private lives, because moral values are not absolute but entirely a matter of personal choice, rulers and officials can equally argue that they should be able to do whatever they like with power if it advances their own interests and objectives. In other words, if totalitarianism is defined as ‘total permissiveness with power’, the logical and philosophical connection between moral laxity, sexual deviancy, and tyranny, becomes obvious.

Sexual Revolution part of original totalitarian Marxist agenda

It should therefore be a matter of concern to those who genuinely value liberty, that abolition of the traditional family, as well as of private property, was part of the totalitarian agenda of Marxism from the very beginning, featuring not only in Marx and Engels’s 1848 Communist Manifesto, but also in Engels’s later work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). Both men rightly saw the traditional ‘bourgeois’ family, supported by private property, and (significantly) by religion, as a formidable obstacle to collectivisation, since it allowed its members to be financially independent of the State, giving them a focus of loyalty, a source of values, and framework of reference, outside it. Marx and Engels’s explicit and contemptuous rejection of belief in God and an objective and eternal Moral Law, was similarly rooted in their entirely correct judgment that Christian theism and morality could never be reconciled with the idea that the only good in life is whatever furthers the triumph of the Socialist Revolution, and that all means to that end are justified, including violence and terror.

If the experience of Communism has given the lie to the claim that atheism and the overthrow of traditional morality is the path to human liberation, the experience of life in our western liberal democracies teaches the same lesson, in a less dramatic but still unmistakeable way. Far from ushering in a new dawn of harmony, joy, and emancipation, the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, and the cultural transformation to which it has led, has undermined standards, encouraged and normalised irresponsible and self-destructive behaviour, and worst of all, inflicted enormous damage on the mental and physical health of millions of children, growing up within broken or dysfunctional families, with all too many deprived of emotional security, adequate adult role models, and civilised values. No wonder crime, delinquency, drug abuse, mental illness, sexual promiscuity, and sexually transmitted diseases, have all rocketed over the last half century, not to mention the holocaust of babies killed in the womb as a result of our lax abortion laws.

Against this background, social liberalism’s celebration of homosexuality, bisexuality, and other forms of deviant sexual identity and behaviour, is tragically misguided, however well intentioned. To say this is not to condemn homosexuals as individuals, or deny their right, in a free society, to engage in consensual sex with each other, or live together and form partnerships, but to draw attention to common sense realities borne out by a mass of sociological and medical evidence about the mental and physical health hazards of the homosexual lifestyle, from anal intercourse between males to other common and harmful sexual practices. Anyone who doubts the truthfulness of this assertion but is willing to look at the evidence with an open mind, should read The Health Hazards of Homosexuality: what the medical and psychological research reveals, a huge 597 page study, drawing on a mass of evidence and statistics from peer-reviewed medical and other scholarly journals, and published in the USA in 2017 by MassResistance, a Massachusetts Parents’ Rights Coalition “focused on preserving parental rights over their children’s exposure to inappropriate sex education in schools.” They should also read British Dr Linda Stalley’s 1997 paper, The Homosexual Lifestyle from a Medical Perspective, and The Top Ten Myths About Homosexuality, a freely available 26 page online pamphlet published by the Family Research Council, USA, which challenges the propaganda of the gay lobby – including the assertion that homosexual attraction and behaviour are fixed and unalterable, and that children brought up by gay couples are no more disadvantaged than those brought up in normal heterosexual households.

Ignored by the liberal media: the testimony of ex-gays

That human beings are not biological robots but possess free will, and have the right, if they choose, to voluntarily seek help to resist or overcome unwanted same sex attraction, should not be questioned or opposed in any free society worthy of the name, especially given the fact, unreported by the mainstream liberal media, that there is now a substantial number of ex-gays who’ve been able to abandon their former sexual identity with the help of voluntary counselling and prayer. In fact, Core Issues Trust, linked to the International Federation for Therapeutic and Counselling Choice (IFTCC), has recently published X-Out-Loud: emerging ex-LGBT voices, a 98pp publication containing the eloquent written testimonies of what God has done, as they see it, in the lives of 44 individuals from 21 countries, to set them free from unwanted same sex attraction, and enable them to build new lives and relationships as normal heterosexuals. Other Christians who still experience same sex attraction but want to resist it in order to live their lives in accordance with Biblical standards, and are rightly aware of God’s infinite love for them, have formed organisations or belong to networks within which they can, with God’s help, encourage and support each other.

In the light of these facts and all the other evidence presented in this paper, the current LGBTQ campaign to ban ‘conversion therapy’ in Britain and elsewhere is a blatant denial of personal freedom. That our supposedly ‘Conservative’ Government has announced its intention to give legislative effect to this flagrantly illiberal project, is shameful beyond words and the most shocking example yet of the opposition of ‘social liberalism’ to liberty.


Copyright © 2022 Philip Vander Elst


Self-Educated American Contributing Editor, Philip Vander Elst, is a British freelance writer, lecturer and C.S. Lewis scholar. After graduating from Oxford in 1973, with a degree in politics and philosophy, he spent more than 30 years in politics and journalism, serving in free market think-tanks like the Centre for Policy Studies and the Institute of Economic Affairs, and writing for conservative and libertarian papers on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Daily Telegraph, the Spectator, Human Events, the American Spectator, and the Freeman. Since 2003 he has become increasingly engaged in Christian apologetics, having made his own journey from atheism to faith during the 1970s. He is the author of many and varied publications including: C.S. Lewis: a short introduction (Continuum 2005), Is There No God? the improbability of atheism (Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, bethinking.org 2010), Can we be free without God? (bethinking.org 2010), From atheism to Christianity: a personal journey (bethinking,org 2011), Power Against People: a Christian critique of the State (The Moral Liberal 2012), and The Principles of British Foreign Policy (Bruges Group 2008). An experienced speaker and former officer of the prestigious Oxford Union Debating Society, Philip has completed nine lecture tours of the United States since 1975, speaking in many American universities and colleges, including Mary Baldwin, the University of Richmond, the University of Colorado, Washington and Lee, Georgetown University, the University of Alabama, George Mason University, the University of Virginia, West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, and the U.S. Air Force Academy.