Is California The True Freedom State?

Joseph Backholm is senior fellow for Biblical worldview and strategic engagement at the Family Research Council. This article appeared in WORLD Magazine on January 25, 2023.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom raised eyebrows recently in his State of the State address when he declared California to be “the true freedom state.” The comments were a thinly veiled shot at Ron DeSantis, who has called Florida “the freest state in America” but also a rebuttal to the perception that California is a case study in progressivism gone wrong.

The inconvenient truth for Gov. Newsom, however, is that the recent record in California is filled with hostility towards civil liberties. Of course, mask mandates were ubiquitous, but that was just the beginning. Governor Newsom was also a leader in school and church closures, and he pursued aggressive legal action against churches that refused to comply with orders to close. Once he gave churches permission to resume exercising their First Amendment rights at 25 percent capacity, they were still told to “discontinue singing and chanting activities.” California still requires all students to get a COVID vaccine if they want to attend school despite significant evidence that the COVID virus is not a serious risk to children.

But he didn’t just crack down on schools and churches. People were arrested for being on the beach and one California city dumped 37 tons of sand into skate parks to make it as difficult as possible to have enjoyable things to do outdoors. Police in Encinitas, Calif., cited 22 people for “watching the sunset” and “having picnics near the beach,” and the mayor of Los Angeles banned “unnecessary travel on foot.” While most of the damage to civil liberties was done through executive order, the entire California legislature passed a law making it illegal for doctors to spread “misinformation” related to COVID-19, which effectively made it illegal for doctors to disagree with the government.

For many, the most galling part of Gavin Newsom’s meddlesome COVID rules was his refusal to comply with the rules he created for others. His infamous, unmasked dinner at the French Laundry (one of the most elite restaurants in the country) in defiance of his own mask mandates define his time as governor for many. In news unrelated to COVID, California recently passed legislation that will ban the sale of gas cars after 2035. Despite it all, Gavin Newsom says, with a straight face, that California is “the true freedom state.”

He isn’t lying, or at least he doesn’t intend to lie.

For those who want the “freedom” to get sex-reassignments, abortion on demand, and be protected from those who didn’t get a COVID vaccine, California is the place for you. Of course, creating that kind of freedom requires parents to lose custody of their children, coerced or forced vaccinations, and churches to be compelled to pay for things they believe are immoral. However, the loss of freedom for those people is not part of the calculation.

Perhaps unintentionally, we accepted the idea some groups are undeserving of empathy so we can treat them cruelly with a clear conscience.

We fell into this trap when we started dividing everyone into oppressors and the oppressed, men against women, and white people against black people. Perhaps unintentionally, we accepted the idea some groups are undeserving of empathy so we can treat them cruelly with a clear conscience.

Jordan Peterson has been sentenced by the Canadian government to mandatory social-media training so he can learn to stop saying things that upset the government. He stands to lose his clinical license as a psychologist if he refuses to comply. If you define “true freedom” the way Gavin Newsom does, it means the freedom from ever being exposed to what Jordan Peterson has to say, never mind Peterson’s right to say it.

C.S. Lewis once wrote that, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.” He explains that tyrants motivated by cruelty may actually be preferable to tyrants with good intentions. After all, “the robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

When Governor Newsom expresses his desire to make California “the true freedom state” he isn’t lying, he just isn’t thinking about the freedom of people like me. To him, we must be cured—against our will if necessary—so that others can be free from people like me. If freedom is what Gov. Newsom thinks it is, look out.