Generally, our civil liberties protect our freedom to make our own choices in life. But some civil rights claims—the ones that assert a right to be immune from discrimination practiced by our fellow citizens—require the government to constrain people’s free choices. ¶ This tension is unavoidable in a society that strives to be both decent and free. A decent society will admit that there must be some limits to individual freedom, that some uses of individual freedom are wrong enough or damaging enough that they should not be permitted. At the same time, a free society will admit that many uses of freedom will have to be tolerated, even if they seem unwise or even inappropriate to those who govern. After all, it makes little sense to speak of a free society in which people are free to do only what is officially approved. ¶ The tension between these two principles may be theoretically problematic—at least to those who demand that their society conform to a particular theory. That tension, however, is perfectly satisfactory from a practical point of view. The good society involves various different kinds of goods. These goods cannot all be maximized: maximization of one necessarily entails the minimization of others, and the absolutization of one necessarily means the annihilation of the others. A healthy society, then, tries to strike a prudent balance among these various goods, by keeping them all within reasonable bounds.
Among philosophers some have pretended that man might know every thing, — these are madmen; others that he could know nothing, — these men were not more wise: the former have given too much to man, the latter too little; both the one and the other have rushed into excess. Where then is wisdom? She consists in not believing that you know every thing — that is the attribute of God alone; in not pretending that you know nothing — that is the property of brutes: between these two extremes there is a medium which is appropriated for man — it is knowledge mixed up with darkness and tempered with ignorance.
When a society rejects the idea of God, it tends to transcendentalize alternatives — such as the ideals of liberty or equality. These now become quasi-divine authorities, which none are permitted to challenge. ¶ Perhaps the most familiar example of this dates from the French Revolution, at a time when traditional notions of God were discarded as obsolete and replaced by transcendentalized human values. In 1792 Madame Rolande was brought to the guillotine to face execution on trumped-up charges. As she prepared to die, she bowed mockingly toward the statue of liberty in the Place de la Révolution and uttered the words for which she is now remembered: “Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name.” Her point is simple, and I believe it to be irrefutable. All ideals — divine, transcendent, human or invented — are capable of being abused. That’s just the way human nature is. And knowing this, rather than lashing out uncritically at religion, we need to work out what to do about it. The problem lies in human nature.
Christianity can falsely be made so severe that human nature must revolt against it … But Christianity can also be made so lenient or flavored with sweetness that all the attempts to perk up the appetite and give people a taste for it with demonstrations and reasons are futile and end up making people disgusted with it.