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Ed Yager

“(Classical) liberalism implies particularly freedom of thought, freedom from orthodox dogma, the right of others to think differently from one’s self. It implies a free mind, open to new ideas and willing to give attentive consideration. ... When I say liberty, I mean liberty of the individual to think his own thoughts and live his own life as he desires to think and live.”

— Sen. Robert A. Taft

“But we are not concerned today with the question of whether Taft was right or wrong in his condemnation of the Nuremberg trials. What is noteworthy is Taft’s unhesitating courage in standing against the flow of public opinion for a cause he believed to be right.  (Taft) authored lasting definitions of liberalism and liberty – this was the creed by which Senator Taft lived, and he sought in his own fashion and in his own way to provide an atmosphere in America in which others could do likewise.”

— John F. Kennedy, “Profiles in Courage”

In this, the last of the Kennedy profiles, we encounter a figure who was fiercely dedicated to liberty of conscience as both a private and public good. Sen. Robert A. Taft, son of former President William Howard Taft, was often called “Mr. Republican” due to his conservative beliefs and his prominent leadership in the party. Nonetheless, Kennedy – a Democrat – selected Taft as a profile to illustrate his courage of independent thought against the Nuremberg Trials.

Speaking out against what he considered the vengeance of the ex post facto Nuremberg Tribunals, Taft procured no political advantage, but rather incurred considerable political cost by entering the controversy. Taft argued: “About this whole judgment there is a spirit of vengeance and vengeance is seldom justice ...” This was a conscience-informed position at odds with most of America. Taft held a dissenting and unpopular view – yet a view requiring protection against the prevailing social pressure to conform and approve of the trials, the convictions and the hanging of Nazi war criminals. Kennedy obviously recognized that Taft’s position was not unreasonable – though Kennedy does not say whether or not he agreed with it.

Perhaps our most sacred liberty is that of conscience. When we stop to consider the protections afforded to our liberties in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, they all point to the prior protection of a free conscience. In other words, without liberty of conscience, religious freedom, free speech, freedom to assemble and a free press are all rendered moot and useless since these are all expressions presuming a free conscience. Indeed, both individual and social growth and development require the protection of the individual’s liberty of conscience. And in both the Taft and Kennedy excerpts we are affirmed in this important principle for human flourishing.

As he concluded his book, Kennedy used the Taft profile to illustrate what great minds throughout human history have said about the sanctity of liberty of conscience for the individual and for the common good.

Next time, and continuing for several weeks, we will turn our attention to a host of thinkers elaborating more on the intellectual foundation to liberty of conscience and the common good.

See you in four weeks. Merry Christmas!

— Ed Yager is a professor of political science at Western Kentucky University.