On Liberty

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

Declaration of Independence

We find ourselves confronted with a conflict of visions for our American culture. There are popular political movements among us that have openly stated their desire to upend the American experiment and way of life because of our sin of slavery and their accusation of systemic racism. By in large, this political vision is not new. It has been around in one form or another for at least 150 years and has been tried in various forms and in many cultures around the world (including America). So, we do not come to this debate at ground zero. We have information. We have history. We have political leaders and their words. We have philosophy and theology. We have a way to weigh the options and come to a decision about which is best for the human race.

Protestant pastors in the 18th and 19th centuries would preach “Election Day” or “Thanksgiving Day” sermons. They would often be asked to inaugurate the beginning of a legislative session with a sermon about human rights and the responsibility of legislators to guard the public trust. Maybe we would be better off if we resumed the practice, but that is a thought for another day.

This is my attempt at something like that. What I have done is collect a handful of big ideas about why I believe the system of American Liberty to be superior to the other political philosophies vying for power right now. I use the term “Marxism” for the other options mostly because it is one of the most commonly used terms at present, but I use it to cover a multitude of political sins.

What follows is hardly exhaustive, even in my own political decision making, but I think these points are both timely and valid. Often the most useful truths are the ones that give balm to our current wounds. I hope this encourages some of you in what you believe but may not know how to express. And I hope this may encourage some of you to see American Liberty through new eyes, willing to hear the wisdom of our country’s Founders.

Liberty values the natural and unalterable equality of all human beings. We are all equal in value as humans, though always different in nearly every other way. Difference is not always injustice; it is sometimes the beauty and strength of the human race. From time to time the differences between us can be directly linked to some form of injustice, but at other times our differences can be aptly described in very different terms. Poverty, for example, can be described as injustice in some situations, and as vice or fatherlessness in others. It is not inconsistent to believe in both actual differences between us and our inherent value at the same time. Philosophers sometimes call this being equal in our “essence” (our humanity), while being different in our “properties” (height, IQ, physical ability, melatonin levels, etc.).

Some of the Founders directly linked this belief to the Christian faith, but all of them saw this equality as “natural” and unalterable. But it is most certainly part of Christian theology. Every human is created in the image of God, and no matter the differences between us, we are supposed to treat each other through the lens of what we have in common (God’s image and Christ’s love), and not by what makes us different.

Most of the protests and riots today have lost all connection to theology, thus losing their grounding in what we all hold in common as humans and has given up on the promise of liberty. Differences are reduced to injustice, divisions by skin color are seen as morally right instead of morally wrong, and hate is stoked in order to gain political advantage.

The moral advance of many of the Civil Rights protests in the 1960’s, especially those led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and others, was their grounding in both their orthodox Christian faith and belief in the promise of liberty as outlined in the Declaration of Independence. Doctor King famously called it America’s “promissory note”. The end of slavery was a promise built into the Declaration of Independence even if it did not happen for another 88 years.

Slavery was not eliminated at the Revolution or the Continental Congress, but the seeds for the end of slavery were planted in our system. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, a man of obvious contradictions, was part of several attempts before and after the Revolution to end the slave trade in the Colonies. Obviously, the attempts failed. But by 1789 every state in the Union had outlawed the slave trade, and by 1804 every northern state committed to emancipation.[i]

This seed of emancipation was so strong, our nation’s Civil War spent over 600,000 lives to see it grow. At the dedication of Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln called the rest of us to complete the “unfinished work” and the “great task” the soldiers began:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863

It is America’s vision of liberty that led a culture that held slaves to address, and eventually end, slavery. While slavery is a world problem, the end of the slave trade and the end of slavery is an accomplishment of the West.

Reducing American history and liberty to the evil of slavery is like reducing your grandparents to one fault they had and forever hating them. Or, even, your grandkids reducing you to your faults and hating you with no possibility of reconciliation.

If the evil of slavery is set in the context of philosophical and theological liberty and equality, it will inevitably be confronted. Part of the vanity and destruction of Marxism and protests today is their desire to remove both cultural enzymes. Marxism is necessarily atheistic. It removes liberty from culture, with all its attendant beliefs in inherent equality before God, and the expectation that people will learn to govern themselves through reason and virtue. As for equality, Marxism has a universal track record – equal amounts of crisis, poverty and misery.

Liberty is aspirational, leading to cultural advancement including our ever-present unease with injustice. Liberty and equality open doors for people, creating systems where we can attain the goods for which we were created. Of course, the system is imperfect. People are imperfect, so all systems comprised of people are imperfect. But this is why it was so important to the Founders to include better structures in the American system. European systems were hide-bound by aristocracy, landed wealth, exclusive education, and state-run churches. The American system turned all that around, believing that a different political structure could lead to human flourishing.

Grievance, an ironic cousin to Utopianism, sees only the differences, labeling them as nothing more than injustice, and demands the unattainable. If there will be no peace until there is total justice, (“No Justice, No Peace”), then we are doomed to a constantly descending spiral of division, anger, and mob tyranny. Marxism and its descendants rely on stoking differences to the point where the only possible reconciliation, the only possible way forward, is division and strife.

Liberty and the American experiment allow for the growth of genuine religion. This is not just an allowance for churches and denominations, though it is that. More significantly, the American idea allows for citizens to treat their God as more important than the State. It allows for people to bring their deeply held values, informed by their faith, into the public square and be taken as seriously as anyone else. And all this happens without state sponsorship of any particular church, or without the state’s interference of the free exercise of religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.

This unique balance – and it truly is unique in the development of political philosophy – was outlined by James Madison in his “A Memorial and Remonstrance”:

“The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society….

Because if Religion be exempt from the authority of the Society at large, still less can it be subject to that of the Legislative Body.”

James Madison, A Memorial and Remonstrance

Every human has both a duty and a right to worship as they see fit. That right and duty come before the state and cannot become subject to the state.

Because Marxism is atheistic, it replaces God with the state, meaning that everything humans are hard-wired to give God (worship, fidelity, moral priority, etc.), they are now expected to give the state. Atheistic governance also upends our American vision of rights. Our Founders’ belief was that rights come before the state, and that they are discovered and enumerated by the government not created by the government. With God gone, the state turns into the creator and distributor of rights. A government that can make up rights can take them away just as easily. And if the citizenry lacks the theological or philosophical wherewithal to resist, they will become pawns of that state.

Liberty both takes as given and relies upon the exercise of reason, free-will, and virtue. The Founders and the rest of the American culture in the 18th century believed that all people were not only equal with regard to their natural rights, they believed every human being was endowed with reason and free-will and were expected to live as people of virtue. The British Enlightenment, especially John Locke, taught them that humans were creatures who, by nature, had rights and reason. Their rights were their own, given by nature and nature’s God, and their reason was what made them uniquely human. The exercise of virtue and reason is what gave them the ability to live with each other and govern themselves without resorting to violence.

Though many of them were deists of one stripe or another, the Founders universally believed in the need of a religious and reasonable people whose lives were tempered and guided by the moral light of the Christian faith. We are not, after all, “angels”, and so we need the institution of the church to instill virtue, and a system of government that simultaneously separates and checks power.

But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. Federalist 51

The need for virtue and reason was often preached from the American pulpit. For example, in a Thanksgiving Day sermon in 1772 titled, “Oration Upon the Beauties of Liberty”, John Allen simply stated, “I therefore without any further apology, take leave to ask your Lordship, whether anyone that fears God, loves his neighbor as himself (which is the true scripture-mark of a Christian) will oppress his fellow creatures? If they will, where are the beauties of Christianity? Not to be seen in this life, however they are to be seen in the next.”

In order for a system of liberty to work, it needs citizens who understand the need for the free and virtuous exercise of human reason. It requires a vibrant and healthy church presence to build virtuous citizens. When people learn to worship and fear God, they become better neighbors. If a political philosophy subjugates the church to the state, uses the church for its purposes, or tries to eliminate it altogether, it is left with the exercise of propaganda and power to enforce its mandates. When churches become a willing extension of some political party, they have allowed a political philosophy to subsume the eternal truths they are intended to defend. Even those citizens who have nothing to do with church or God need these values to be generally accepted in a society. We not only need laws against assault and battery, we need citizens who have an internal aversion to it.

No system is perfect. A few systems allow for aspiration and improvement, while most others result in coercion, anger, and decay. It is hard to hold to a system that requires us to be people of virtue, but so much more is possible when we do. Legend has it that Benjamin Franklin was asked by a woman outside the Continental Convention what kind of government they were given. He replied, “A Republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

May we.

[i] Thompson, C. Bradley, America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It, (New York, NY: Encounter Books, 2019), 146.

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