Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

As we celebrate Independence Day, it’s fitting to reflect on the theme that compelled the colonists to separate from Great Britain: freedom. Arguably, no nation has ever had so much of it leading to vast wealth, prosperity, and a high standard of living. At the same time, no nation afforded such freedom has witnessed so much of its populace using it so poorly. Drug addiction, obesity, and sloth—all misuses of freedom—inflict so many with great harm. How can this be? Ignorance, yes. Misunderstanding, certainly.

Kentucky’s 2023 legislative session provides a laboratory and insight into our current understanding of freedom. Consider SB 150, where trans-advocates argued that bans on puberty blockers violated parental rights over their children. Education officials argued that curriculum bans on LGBTQ identities and ideologies kept students in the dark on important aspects of human sexuality. Others argued that refusal to address students by their gender preferred pronouns violated their personhood and jeopardized their safety.

SB 5 was enacted over protests, and some charged it as a “book ban bill” impeding freedom of inquiry for students. SB 115, dubbed the “drag queen ban,” would have kept sexually oriented performances out of public spaces. Each of these bills test the limits of freedom and force us to think through what it means.

Good public policy undergirds fundamental freedoms, while at the same time it recognizes its limits. Parents have primary responsibility for raising their children according to their values. Yet those values cannot infringe on the health and safety of them. Even though some parents may subscribe to modern theories of gender identity and development, their rights stop when allowing substance use that undermines their health (alcohol or tobacco) or approving protocols like puberty blockers that arrest their physiological development.

In a similar vein, public schools are entrusted to teach Kentucky’s children. But that charge isn’t absolute. Parental input is necessary and parental rights must be respected. Public schools also have an obligation to teach age-appropriate curriculum, which supports a child’s well-being. Hence, teaching the Genderbread Person, which introduces sexuality and gender identity to five and six year olds, isn’t appropriate. Limits of minor’s freedoms must also be realized. They are immature, vulnerable, and cannot fully comprehend life-changing decisions. That’s why it was disconcerting to see middle and high school kids from across the state, some in rainbow face paint, others with Pride flags draped over their shoulders, convened to protest SB 150 at Kentucky’s Capitol back in March. Children shouldn’t be enlisted as political foot soldiers draft ed into somebody’s culture war.

It’s clear that not all things that we call freedom make us free. For example the habit of overeating or comfort eating inevitably leads to obesity. This ultimately limits the possibilities otherwise afforded by healthy life choices. The same can be said of sundry other things we’re free to take into our bodies. But what about our moral and spiritual diet? Pushing moral limits in the name of freedom has many advocates. But support wanes when the weight of an unrestrained life negatively affects other parts of society.

Implicit to freedom’s viability in society is a strong internal compass within the heart of each citizen. Points on this compass include wisdom, discipline, fortitude, and where the rules for life originate. Navigating life and equipping children with a moral framework begins in the home. But the state should also support moral rules. Our Founding Fathers acknowledged God as the source of freedom. Their vision was one of ordered liberty that leads to human flourishing. Freedom abused wrecks one’s health.

Freedom widely abused wrecks a society. It’s becoming clear that breeching moral limits and disregarding spiritual vitality eventually leads to a human condition where psychological health and well-being are sacrificed. Christians argue that only Christ can free people from the chains of sin and slave of self. (This is the realm of the church). When the church fails to speak to personal morality, freedom abused affects a society. (Restoring order in public is the realm of the state). Appropriately balancing these jurisdictions underlies the debates over social issues. As we commemorate Independence Day, may we ponder this great gift and use it well.