Trumping Freedom of Association

The owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave because the proprietor and her staff did not want to serve someone who works for President Trump. That is an unpleasant thing to be sure, but there is a large silver lining to it. It offers a rare and substantial ground on which we should all stand together: the freedom of association. Rather than focusing on the growing animosity that divides us, perhaps we should seize this opportunity to agree.

Opportunity for Political Agreement

The opportunity for discussion arises from the obvious juxtaposition of the Sanders case and the thoroughly litigated incident involving a gay couple in Colorado and the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop. When news broke of Sanders’ ejection, people on the Left just couldn’t help but sneer. “See! This is what you get when you say the Christian baker can deny service to gays!”

What an opportunity!

Let’s set aside the question of right and wrong and focus simply on the legal question. (The two get confused all the time anyway.) For anyone concerned about whether a Christian business owner may legally act in accordance with his conscience, you now have  a perfect example of an objection from the other side. If acknowledging that the owner of the Red Hen had the legal right to ask Sanders and her party to leave, then let’s also agree that the baker has the legal right to decline to make a cake for a gay couple. Foiled dinner plans are a small price to pay for the political agreement that people should have a legal right to conduct their business as they choose.

Political agreement is, after all, what this is all about.

If we do not agree, then why would we associate with one another? While this case does not provide an example of citizens agreeing or associating, it does provide us a key element of what can keep us together: a better understanding of why freedom of association is both a fundamental right and indispensable to the common good.

If we can agree that government should stay out of both cases, and that freedom of association should prevail even if we dislike the reasons behind it, that’s a big deal. It would be a big step toward understanding liberty as a foundational element of our union.

The Freedom of Association

The freedom of association isn’t straightforward any more, especially after the civil rights movement. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be. It is fairly simple, really; each of us has the right to associate with whomever we please, according to the edicts of our conscience. If we can set aside past questions of prudence in the civil rights movement, we can look at freedom of association as the foundational element that it is.

In the widely praised book The Political Theory of the American Founding, Tom West explains that the centrality of the freedom of association, or as he calls it, liberty.

Liberty means being left alone, not coerced by others. Being born free, all may do as they please, without interference from other people, subject only . . . to the laws of nature. Liberty in daily life therefore means that people are free to organize their affairs as they see fit . . . The right was so “self-evident” to everyone [in the founding era] that it was rarely mentioned. No one ever questioned it. On the few occasions when it was made explicit, it was typically in connection with religion . . . But this freedom was not limited to religious associations. Liberty includes the right of any self-selected group to “converse together,” to assemble, and to “govern itself according to its own voluntary rules” for any noninjurous purpose.

As I understand it, the freedom of association may not be as inviolable as the freedom of conscience, but it is so closely related that it should be nearly so. Without a clear understanding that we get to choose the people with whom we associate, it is hard to understand any freedom at all (any freedom of consequences anyway).

The freedom of association also includes the freedom not to associate with someone. Add property into the mix, and that means you have the freedom to ask—or even to demand—someone leave your property. This is true for bakers and restaurant owners, and we should embrace the opportunity to discuss it. We should all agree that neither being denied dinner nor a custom wedding cake is a real injury to anyone. Just as the owner of the Red Hen can stand on freedom of association, so, too, can the Christian baker.

Liberty Based On Equality

Agreeing that freedom of association protects the baker and the restaurant owner may be a good first step toward a shared understanding of the common good, but understanding its origin can truly unite us.

West treats this causation carefully in his book. Simply put, freedom of association emerges from human equality properly understood, and that is the thing that binds us together.

Though equality is no longer a straightforward proposition, it ought to be. It is one of the most obvious things on earth. If you put a tall, skinny, dark-skinned woman; a short, fat, fair-skinned man; and a pig in a room, even a child will immediately know that two of them are human and one is a pig. This “is the work of intuition that every rational creature performs instantly and without error,” writes Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn, who presents the case very well. Lots of “education” and training might help some people deny it for a time, but they cannot keep it up for long. Even Southern slaveholders, who worked so hard to justify their sin by dehumanizing their slaves, ultimately could not deny the slave’s humanity. As Lincoln pointed out, their own laws betrayed them. We are all different, but we are all human. And in that, we are equal.

Lincoln described how the principle of equality is more important than a common history or race. It is the “moral principle,” he said, that binds us to each other even though some of us are immigrants (the irony is not lost on me given the cause of our current predicament). “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” is the foundation of both the freedom of association and the unity of our nation.

Focus on Our Better Angels

The Red Hen incident provides an opportunity to focus on what unites us. I understand the sentiment that is more and more common—the “you won’t like the new rules” warning. The vitriol against President Trump and increasingly anyone who voted for him is so staggering at times that it would be hard for any man not to look forward to a bit of revenge. Even the moderate men of Power Line have begun signing onto it a bit. And I am not blind to the fact that the Left cares little about consistency and entirely about control. But as Ryan Williams from the Claremont Institute discussed recently, “the cold civil war must not become hot.” We should take any opportunity we can to turn the discussion, if only among ourselves, toward unity.

Lincoln put it better:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Agreeing that we each have the right to associate with whomever our consciences permit might be a good place to start. Perhaps we can look back through this agreement to build a common understanding of what it means to be created equal. If so, we might be able to stay one nation under God.

Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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About Bill Kilgore

Bill Kilgore is the pseudonym of a writer serving in the United States military. It should go without saying that the views expressed in his articles are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.