Our nation has "entered an age of post-constitutional soft tyranny." Mark Levin, most known for being a talk-radio host and best-selling author but also the president of the Landmark Legal Foundation and a veteran of the Reagan Justice Department, makes this assertion in his new book, "The Liberty Amendments." The New Mexico Supreme Court subsequently offered evidence of this, deciding that photographers who object to same-sex marriage can't opt out of taking pictures at same-sex weddings.
The court ruled that you can believe whatever you want -- as long as you don't take it all that seriously.
But then, this is how the soft tyranny develops.
In his book, Levin turns to Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous 19th-century writer, to help Americans reflect on their path and their future. Levin quotes from "Democracy in America," speaking of unreasonable government interference: "Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is shepherd."
Not mincing words, Levin says of America today: "Social engineering and central planning are imposed without end, since the governing masterminds, drunk with their own conceit and pomposity, have wild imaginations and infinite ideas for reshaping society and molding man's nature in search of the ever-elusive utopian paradise. Their clumsy experiments and infantile pursuits are not measured against any rational standard. Their preciousness and sanctimony are justification enough."
They may do so with the best of intentions. But lost is a respect for human dignity in the quest to dictate belief. Law may no longer serve as a teacher but an ideological enforcer.
Levin quotes more Tocqueville: "I wish ... that they would never forget that a nation cannot long remain strong when every man belonging to it is individually weak; and that no form or combination of social polity has yet been devised to make an energetic people out of a community of pusillanimous and enfeebled people."
Here we might respect a photographer's conscience rights rather than insist that her work affirm a radical cultural shift that courts insist we not simply tolerate but affirm.
In the New Mexico case, one justice's concurring opinion was clear: Think what you want, pray to whomever/whatever, but don't let harmless nonsense infect your interactions with others. He said that the Christian couple with the photography business, the Huguenins, "are free to think, to say, to believe, as they wish; they may pray to the God of their choice and follow those commandments in their personal lives wherever they lead. The Constitution protects the Huguenins in that respect and much more. But there is a price, one that we all have to pay somewhere in our civic life."
What are we going to do about it? The civil society that so impressed Tocqueville is waning and threatened. When the government says that conscience beliefs that conflict with its mandates on health insurance, in the realm of contraception, sterilization and even abortion, are not fit for the public square and even cause for punishment, it marginalizes the diverse cast of characters and ideas that a democratic republic needs.
The Founders, Levin reflects, sought to figure out "how best to preserve the civil society in a world of imperfect people and institutions." That's our civic mission today, if we are to be good stewards of the gifts -- of God, and man, and an exceptional experiment in freedom -- we've been given.
Kathryn Lopez is the editor-at-large of National Review Online nationalreview.com.