Freedom from…wait, what?

So, I’m thinking about a conversation I had with a student in Justice class yesterday. I was saying that one of the objections to big government is that it stops small towns from enforcing prayer in schools. And he got turned around on it – he doesn’t think a school should have to force anyone to pray. But that’s the policy of big government. That’s the paradox.

I’m fascinated by the school prayer issue for this reason. It was a case that occurred in the 1950s, and has been a source of controversy ever since. Yet it is not especially well understood by liberals. Most folks on the left seem to want to imagine that conservative governments want to force their conservative brand of Christianity on the rest of the country, and yet that is not, from my understanding, really the case. What most conservative Christians want is the right to make local and/or State laws that harmonize with their views, which the power of the Federal government in general and the Supreme Court in particular has frustrated throughout the modern era.

But let’s step back a moment. Imagine it’s 1900, and you and everyone you know emigrates from central Europe to the United States, looking for place to settle where you can live peacefully by your own traditions. You’re not interested in forcing anyone else to live by your traditions. On the contrary, you’re tolerant of others. You won’t mess with them as long as they don’t mess with you. Live and let live. You get some land, you cultivate the land, work hard, and establish a little town with a church and school. Everyone in town goes to the same church, and therefore everyone at school abides by the rules laid down by the church. Sweet liberty! All are happy. You are able to live free of outside intervention.

Fifty odd years later, some guys in black robes in a far off place called Washington tell you that you can’t require your local school to abide by your local church rules. You can pray in school, but you can’t require it, and you can’t exclude outsiders. What the fuck? You aren’t messing with outsiders. You’re not forcing your way of life on anyone. You came and established your town for your people and who the fuck are these “Justices” to tell you what you can or can’t do in your little school on the prairie?

You can extend this sort of thinking to a great many issues – slavery, for example, was not an issue of the South forcing Northern states to abide slavery, only to abide the right of the South to practice it. Hence the continual reference to “States rights.” Folks on the left have a tendency to conflate “states rights” with racism – but there’s an important difference here. That difference is that in order to end slavery, the Federal government had to fight a massively destructive war. Moreover, it had to enforce laws that were thought terribly unjust by vast swaths of the population.

The key to understanding the present political moment, for me, is the opposition to the Federal government. The whole point of the Trump administration is not to reform the Federal government, it is to diminish it as much as possible. To make it stop telling people what to do. To restore liberty to States and localities. So that if a town wants to vote to require all students be practicing Christians, they can do that. Or if a State wants to outlaw abortion and birth control practices, they can do that. Or if a corporation feels that regulations are unfairly interfering in their conducting a profitable enterprise, they can get them changed or abolished without too much trouble.

People love to hate on the Federal government. Everybody does. But y’all are gonna miss that shit when it’s gone.

Published by samuelbarbour

Besides writing a blog, I also teach, farm, cook, and play music. I live in the Illinois River Valley with my partner, Molly Breslin, who sometimes posts stuff at

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