by Jon Sanders
Director of the Center for Food, Power, and Life, Research Editor, John Locke Foundation
One of the signature freedoms singled out for special protection in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is the freedom of association. The amendment forbids the government from abridging “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”
In plain terms, it means it’s none of a government’s business who you choose to gather with, who chooses to gather with you, and just as importantly, what associations you’d like to join or avoid. This protection of a fundamental liberty leaves open an unimaginable array of possible interactions among people in who knows how many areas of common interest. And that’s as it should be, because it’s in these shared experiences — among people who might differ in other respects — where communities knit together and people learn to respect those differences.
No one could possibly guess how many shared interests can develop among people, let alone how many gradations of shared interests. For instance, how many genres of music can you name? Let’s say you named “heavy metal.” To those with a passing familiarity of that genre, it’s one genre of really loud stuff. But to those with highly specialized interests, there are “literally hundreds of subgenres.” Drilling down further, there are fan bases dedicated to individual bands — and even individual band members. And this subclassification on down to the individual level can be done for who knows how many other genres.
Politics is just a tiny sliver of possible shared human interests. Nevertheless, it is among the most divisive. It is so divisive, in fact, that it was long considered proper dining etiquette to avoid politics. In the 21st century, amid the evil rise of “cancel culture” fomented by socialists who put politics above all things, including objective truth, there has been a growing and insistent pressure to browbeat perceived politically wayward family members at family gatherings, especially during holiday dinners.
What you think of as a time to gather together and break bread in thankfulness, they think of as a time to berate and harangue a captive audience. It’s not only rude, but also by elevating politics above everything else the gathering is intended to represent and honor, it threatens to tear the bonds of family.
It’s not only rude, but also by elevating politics above everything else the gathering is intended to represent and honor, it threatens to tear the bonds of family.
What they miss, and what we should not, is that there are so many richer, deeper things in life than politics — and these things are to be cherished. These untold interpersonal experiences and associations, not fealty to the State, are what make life worth living. It is in the knowledge of these rich outcroppings of freedom that we at Locke advocate individual liberty and limited, constitutional government in order to yield “a better balance between the public sector and private institutions of family, faith, community, and enterprise.”
A society that keeps this balance is a healthy community filled with varied opportunities for shared experiences bringing together people from otherwise different walks of life. It yields a strong community interwoven together in manifold ways.
Paul wrote to the church at Philippi that, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.” When we do, we will think of family, friends, food, music and the arts, sports, our passions, and even politicians and political accomplishments as part of a balanced whole.
Consider the “unlikely” friendship between literary theorist and legal scholar Stanley Fish and conservative commentator and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza. In an interview with his friend, Fish said the following:
I was chastised repeatedly for having you as a friend, for breaking bread with you (as I am about to do again), and for giving your “crackpot” arguments the time of day. One reader hoped that my criticism of the movie (which he thought too mild) might end a friendship that brought discredit to me.
The idea is that you should choose your friends or spouses or partner by applying a political litmus test. Have the right (in this case, left) views and you can be my friend.
It doesn’t work that way in the world — witness Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston, James Carville and Mary Matalin, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia — and, if I can borrow from one of my own titles, it’s a good thing, too.
It’s an admirable perspective by people with a healthy view of community and the richness of relationships despite some differences, especially political ones. It’s made possible when government protects the freedom of association rather than dictates which associations are allowable or are compulsory. If politics-first socialists were somehow to succeed in subjugating our associations to the whims of the State, it’s hard to estimate how much we would lose, so we must be ever protective of this freedom. Meanwhile, we should always strive to cherish friendship across our differences rather than give into pressures to divide into political tribes in every walk of life.