Published May 3, 2023
Here is something curious about today’s culture wars: Both sides seem to think they are losing. We are so accustomed to the experience of defeat and retreat on the right—as faith, traditional marriage, and even basic gender realities get thrown out the window—that we may have trouble imagining the left as feeling anything other than wild triumph. Some progressive activists may exult at our rout, to be sure, but more often they are likely to motivate their voters with fearful warnings of personal rights under assault by a resurgent religious right, with the specter of a rising tide of authoritarian bigotry.
A sampling of recent headlines sounds a consistent theme. “Trans Rights are Under Attack” warned one journal, while Time published an article under the heading, “All of the Ways State Lawmakers Tried to Restrict Trans Rights This Week.” And the once sober-minded labor economist Robert Reich issued the shrill warning in The Guardian that “Republican attacks on trans people smack of fascism.”
From these and other stories, one would assume that victorious right-wing mobs were prowling the streets, rounding up helpless individuals troubled with gender dysphoria, and herding them into seedy ghettos. In fact, the “rights” under attack are things that no one would have remotely thought plausible two decades ago: the “right” to perform double-mastectomies on 13-year-old girls, the “right” for men to use women’s bathrooms if that’s where they feel most comfortable, the “right” to use taxpayer-funded schoolrooms to teach young children to question their sexual identity. How do we make sense of this?
The difficulty is that once you can define something as a “right” in our society, you claim the rhetorical high ground. Anyone acting to protect society, morality, or other individuals can be described as seeking to “strip people of their rights,” and what could be more un-American than that? Conservatives have invested heavily in the rhetoric of rights as well: the “right to religious liberty,” the “right to private property,” the “right to work,” etc. And they generally agree that once-oppressed groups, like African-Americans, have been right to claim equal rights that demand protection.
But now, new “rights” seem to be springing up on every side faster than we can keep track, and each new right immediately takes its seat alongside the others, coolly demanding to be protected against all comers. Any refusal to recognize or protect such declared rights is seen by progressives as a breathtaking and un-American attack on personal liberty.
This idea of rights dates back to the radical Enlightenment philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), who argued in his Theological-Political Treatise “that each individual thing has the sovereign right to do everything that it can do.” Reason and self-restraint, he said, were irrelevant when it came to rights: “the ignorant or intemperate person possesses the sovereign right to do everything that desire suggests, i.e., he has the right of living by the laws of appetite.”
This was wholly different from the older Christian idea of rights presupposed by the American Founders—that one has rights only in order to perform duties. That is, since God created us to do good, we must have rights enabling us to carry out those goods—rights to speech, assembly, worship, possession of property, and more—but one could never assert a right to do evil or proclaim a sovereign right independent of all moral considerations.
These divergent visions of rights lead to utterly different visions of politics, and explain the ferocity of the current culture wars. From the conservative perspective, any new rights-claim has to justify itself in terms of the objective goods it pursues, and also explain why such a right should be recognized if it never was before. If the new behavior cannot justify itself as a valid right, we should continue to restrict it for the good of all.
From the progressive standpoint, new rights-claims are virtually self-authenticating. If someone can show they have a desire to do something, and the power to do it (or technology can give them that power), well then, they have a right to do it, and who’s to stop them? It matters not how new the right is—a right discovered and declared just yesterday is as sacred as one enshrined in the Magna Carta. Once discovered, the right cannot be limited by anyone—after all, that would be a human rights violation, and we know what to think of those.
To us, it seems obvious we are just trying to fight a rear-guard action against a triumphant wave of moral anarchy. Our opponents, however, with every fresh advance manage to whip their ranks into a frenzy of fear that it is they who are under assault. There is no easy way out of such a moral and metaphysical mess. But we can begin at least by understanding how we got here, and pray for the renewal of moral imagination that would make political persuasion possible once again.
Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is the founder and president of the Davenant Institute. He also works as a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.