What I Learned In English Lit About Civil Liberties

In 1977 an American neo-Nazi group announced plans to march through Skokie, IL. In case you aren’t sure Nazi is short for the National Socialist Party in Germany. They flourished before and up to the end of World War II (1939–45). Their leader was an Austrian thug named Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), who manipulated and bullied his way to power in Germany in the 1930s. Under his leadership, and inspired by his ideology, the Germans not only initiated World War II, in which about 60 million people died, but they also sought systematically to murder all the Jews in Europe. They succeeded in murdering 6 million. This really happened. A neo-Nazi, then, is one who seeks to resuscitate that virulently and violently anti-semitic view. They are white supremacists. To make the march through Skokie even more controversial and emotionally painful for its residents, 64% of the residents were Jewish and many of them were survivors of the Holocaust, the murder of 6 million Jews. The Supreme Court of the United States reversed an Illinois court effectively permitting the march through Skokie. Like many others, I was appalled by the court’s apparent insensitivity to the feelings and experiences of the Holocaust survivors, their families, and friends in Skokie.

I had a high-school literature lab course that year where I was allowed to read and write. At some point the Skokie question came up in discussion with one of the teachers in the lab. When I objected to the march she gently explained to me that this is America and objective constitutional liberties, the relative absence of restraint on speech and acts (and speech acts) trumps the (subjective) feelings of even the mostly justly aggrieved such as the Holocaust survivors in Skokie. She explained that, in America, we have a duty to protect the freedom of speech/act of despised minorities, even justly despised minorities, as a matter of principal. My mother had tried to teach me that same lesson. She used to say that my rights ended where another’s nose begins. My teacher and my mother were trying to help me to understand that, in America, if we don’t protect the freedom of others to dissent, even if that dissent is morally repugnant, then we may well find that our own views may become unpopular and we too may find ourselves silenced. In the late 1970s I don’t recall anyone talking about “political correctness.” The Berlin Wall would not come down for a decade. The (Marxist) Communists were our enemies. In my senior year of high school, Iranian Muslims took Americans hostage for 444 days. We rejoiced when they were set free. When the American Olympic hockey team defeated the Evil Empire, as President Reagan rightly described the Soviet Union (who held millions hostage and was responsible for the murder of millions in the 20th century) we rejoiced again. We were celebrating basic constitutional freedoms: of religion (none in Iran, none in the Soviet Union), of speech (none in Iran, none in the Soviet Union), and freedom of association (none in Iran, none in the Soviet Union). As late as 1984, quite without any hipster irony, Robin Williams could make a pro-American, anti-Soviet film, Moscow on the Hudson, celebrating freedom as the relative absence of civil restraint on religion, speech, and association. We did not know in 1984 that just a few years later the Berlin Wall, which represented the repression and murder of millions, would fall and that all the ugly truth about the USSR would come out in a remarkable burst of freedom. Neither could we know that about one generation after that, many American young people would no longer have many teachers (or parents apparently) to tell them hard constitutional American truths about freedom.

I was reminded of Skokie this morning by an article by Christina Arriaga (HT: Stella Morabito— listen to two Heidelcast interviews with Stella here and here) in which she quite reasonably says:

In America, it is precisely our belief in freedom of speech, association, and religion that allows us to live in peace and with mutual respect even when standing shoulder to shoulder with people who may have offensive views and who disagree on matters that go to the core of who we are.

She reminds us that during the controversy the American Civil Liberties Union actually defended the constitutional right of the  neo-Nazis to march through Skokie. Indeed, the ACLU is quite proud of this moment and has an entire page of their website devoted to it. If you are surprised by that fact, then perhaps it is an indicator of how things have changed. Just this morning Faith in Public Life tweeted a link to an RNS story suggesting that some political candidates are manipulating evangelical fears over religious freedom for political purposes. Be that as it may, I replied by reminding them that when

it is reasonable to be concerned about the state of civil liberty in the United States.

What I learned from my high school English teacher is that civil liberty has nothing to do with ideological conformity or consensus. My first impulse was to silence dissent. I was wrong. My teacher and my mother were correct. I could both support the constitutional right of the neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, as distasteful and ugly an act as that was, and utterly reject their ideology. To permit them to march did not imply moral support for them. It was an expression for an agreed social compact, a social, civil covenant we have among ourselves: that we will live peacefully with one another, even if we disagree with each other fundamentally. When we founded this nation we agreed that we would not try to use the levers of civil authority to force religious or ideological conformity. The great sin of Southern Slavery was grounded in a false anthropology that denied the true and full humanity of Africans in order to justify enslaving them. What was criminal from the perspective of civil liberties was not their thinking or even their advocacy of that ideology but their denial of freedom (through chattel slavery) to millions of Africans through kidnapping and enslavement.

You may disagree with a florist, bakery, a pizzeria, or ministers who will not do what you think they should but are you prepared to live in a country where civil authorities, sometimes unelected agencies, compel others to act against conscience? If they can do it to those with whom you disagree, they can do it to you. Is that what you want?

Postscript. There were shadows of political correctness in the late 70s. Most of us did not have that category. I suppose I should have kept reading The Gulag Archipelago but it was too frightening, too long, and too depressing.  In 1978–79, as evidence that Providence has a sense of humor, I auditioned to speak at graduation and the committee approved. My lame-brained idea was to represent the mediocre amongst the graduating class. I graduated 250th out of 500 students. I was the quintessence of mediocrity. Yes, I know, nothing has changed. When I submitted the first draft of my remarks the same teacher who had given me that hard lesson about Skokie, I was told that I should remove some evangelistic remarks about Jesus. It was disappointing and, to my shame, I complied with the authorities. The speech was otherwise an unremarkable paean full of PC bromides but that small editorial moment was a foretaste of things to come. In context, when we still had a prayer service in conjunction with graduation, the omission of the Savior’s name seemed like a small concession. In my junior year of high school some of us formed a small, voluntary prayer group that met weekly before class. The principal approved. We found a faculty sponsor who attended faithfully. We were asked to keep it low-key. We complied. It was another small concession. The next year, however, word got out and there was controversy.1 I do not remember the ACLU defending the civil liberties of students to assemble voluntarily for prayer.

These are reminders to pay attention to small concessions of civil liberties. Before you know it the IRS will be querying the genuineness of your religion and you may be bankrupted for acting according to ancient, sincere, honored, and deeply held religious convictions. Small concessions of fundamental liberties add up to great losses.


The Obama administration says that the non-profit status of politically incorrect organizations “is going to be an issue.”


1. The question of the status of on-campus Bible Studies and prayer groups was an issue in Nebraska and elsewhere in the 1980s. In the late 1970s some Amish families came to Nebraska from Ohio and refused to send their children to school. There was an unaccredited school in Louisville, Nebraska that provoked controversy and even a stand-off with authorities. In 1985 the Court ruled in favor of a Westside (Omaha) school student who sued the school district for unconstitutionally infringing upon her religious liberty. See Richard F. Duncan, “Religious Rights in Public High Schools: The Supreme Court Speaks on Equal Access,” Indiana Law Review (1990).

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  1. When I was in college during the mid- and late-1960’s, students often quoted the saying attributed to Voltaire, “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I never believed for a moment that they really meant that (the “defend to the death” part), but at least they said it. Free speech for everyone, and all that. Tragically, that’s all gone now. Such a pubic stand for free speech is unthinkable today. Civic liberty and religious freedom seem to be dying before our eyes, and it may get much worse before it gets better. Very soon, “counting the cost” may mean something to Christians that it’s never meant in our nation before.

    • “Such a public stand . . .” Love covers a multitude of sins, and typos, too.

    • Just for the record, that quote “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” was actually from Evelyn Beatrice Hall as an illustration of Voltaire’s beliefs.

      Side note: I wonder which would be more effective, for the Neo-Nazi’s to have a march and no one care, or for the streets to be lined with pro-jewish supporters, peaceably turning their backs on the Nazis and effectively forming a blockade so people in their homes would not have to see the Nazis march.

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