Skip to main content

the insanity of autonomy

May 26th, 2017 | 4 min read

By Matthew Loftus

Kate Shellnutt asked wrote a piece in Christianity Today discussing a new Gallup poll suggesting that Americans are getting more liberal in their social views:

The church today finds itself in a precarious position, as an ethical shift pushes public opinion in favor of stances that Christians have traditionally sided against. Meanwhile, Americans from all political and theological stripes have their own reasons to be concerned over moral decline.

In a recent poll, Gallup found a widening embrace for more than a dozen moral issues, including record-high acceptance for gay relationships, divorce, pornography, polygamy, and physician-assisted suicide.

Kate asked me for some of my thoughts, and I went on far longer than she needed. I figured I might as well post my comments in full below, but make sure you read her piece (which also includes quotes from Andrew Walker, Dan Darling, & Ted Olsen), too!
When I look at these figures showing that our moral views are getting more liberal, I think about how dangerous it is to build our social order on autonomy and freedom and how only a Biblical sense of obligation to one another can pull us back from the brink.
When we talk about “liberalism” in the West, we often conflate progressivism and classical liberalism. Most modern-day “conservatism” is just as classically liberal as progressivism because it centers around autonomy and freedom, and most political debates assume that human beings ought to have the freedom to be independent of obligations or expectations put upon them. Virtually all of the more “liberal” changes measured by Gallup (except for the death penalty) are about maximizing autonomy and self-determination.
The biggest political question in liberal societies is whether the state should micromanage our affairs such that each citizen has the resources to be as independent as possible of others or if the state should lower taxes to the point that no individual is financially burdened by the needs of others. What both sides implicitly agree on is that less autonomous persons who impose obligations on others are less valuable. One school of thought in American politics sees the homeless and the poor as unproductive leeches who deserve no extra resources and ought to suffer — even die — if they cannot exercise perfect control over their bodies and be more “responsible” for themselves. Another would like to see Americans embrace doctor-assisted suicide as many other Western nations have, allowing people exercise the ultimate autonomy over themselves by choosing their own time and method of death. Christian moral values will always be fighting a losing battle in a culture that sacralizes individual autonomy.
Growing up as a conservative Christian, classical liberalism was never questioned. While I don’t think we need to jettison this viewpoint entirely, I do think that the Bible’s conception of justice and moral righteousness have a lot more to do with the obligations we have to our fellow human beings than the freedoms we love to celebrate. Liberalism in every form encourages us to untether from one another so we can be free of obligation, but in the end that just leaves us floating in space.
Our arguments about the importance of sexual morality will fall flat until we interrogate the many ways in which autonomy is enthroned in our social lives and give an account of how God’s intent for sex fits into the broader picture of mutual obligation. I wrote more about this in my very first piece for Mere Orthodoxy!, but here’s how Wendell Berry puts it in his seminal essay  Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community:
If you depreciate the sanctity and solemnity of marriage, not just as a bond between two people but as a bond between those two people and their forebears, their children, and their neighbors, then you have prepared the way for an epidemic of divorce, child neglect, community ruin, and loneliness. If you destroy the economies of household and community, then you destroy the bonds of mutual usefulness and practical dependence without which the other bonds will not hold.
Christians should never stop proclaiming moral truths about sexuality and sin, no matter how unpopular they might be. At the same time, resisting the currents of autonomy requires that we demonstrate a Biblical worldview by choosing solidarity with the vulnerable and embracing ourr obligations to the poor — otherwise, we’re just a different kind of liberal.

Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at