Liberty From The Start
Audio: Liberty From The Start
“Libertè, Égalité, Fraternitè!” the French yelled during their Revolution. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity! As Americans, we did much the same when the pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness was proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. These were “unalienable rights,” self-evident and endowed by God. This is pretty powerful stuff! Many of the specifics needed to implement this vision were hammered out in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, allowing us to be safe in our homes, free to say what we think, and with a certain amount of economic freedom to pursue our goals of happiness. The fact that these rights have not always been evenly applied says more about the imperfection of humanity than it does about the nobility of these rights.
But where did this all come from? We know that Thomas Jefferson borrowed and slightly altered a phrase attributed to late 17th century philosopher John Locke, who felt all humans had natural rights and the government should protect these by protecting an individual’s right to life, liberty and property. That’s great, but where did John Locke get his ideas? Sometimes we think that revolutionary ideas like these just spring up spontaneously from great minds, but in fact John Locke was influenced by a culture and history going back thousands of years that valued freedom – liberty – over just about anything else. Although not a theologian and a rather abstract religious thinker, Locke was undoubtedly influenced by the Bible.
The great Biblical account of liberation from slavery in Exodus served as a foundational theme for later encounters with oppression and occupation throughout the Old Testament. Jesus moves the story inward with his emphasis on liberation from sin, rather than political oppression. As Christianity overcame paganism in Europe, Africa and parts of Asia, this song of liberation was sung louder and louder, even if liberation was not actually achieved. Finally, the idea had enough momentum that Enlightenment philosophers like Locke could take ideals and mold them into workable, foundational philosophies, which finally saw their way into implementations such as the American Constitution.
But, going all the way back to the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, what was the freedom that they sought? We might think about freedoms such as freedom of speech, economic freedom and so forth. But for God, speaking in the book of Exodus, the Hebrews desperately needed freedom in order to worship Him. Today we might abbreviate this as a general religious freedom and not take into account what a radical notion this was to Moses and the gang. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob pushed humanity to break away from the ancient idea that religion and the gods were handed down and mitigated through rulers such as Pharoah, and instead establish a direct relationship with the Divine formed through a Law given by God. It’s not that people like Moses did not continue to lead their people, it’s that the foundation of that leadership was based on the authoritative word of God rather than the arbitrary rule of man. That authority was reiterated and expanded through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that removed the legalism of the Mosaic Law and replaced it with more responsibility for humanity to live out God’s authority in full awareness of their direct relationship with the Divine.
This talk of God-given Law ought to sound familiar to most Americans. Not only are our freedoms described as being endowed by God, we have specifically chosen to live by the Rule of Law in order to limit the arbitrariness of a singular ruler such as a King or a dictator. Some like to think of this Rule of Law as being secular, but it is in fact directly tied to Judeo-Christian concepts of individual freedom, individual responsibility and, most importantly, individual ability to pay homage to the God who endowed all of these things. And, in a marvelous sign of God’s grace, even those who do not believe in God benefit from a society organized around precepts endowed by God.
Admittedly, it has taken a while for all of this to take full effect, and our implementation is incomplete and riddled with the sinfulness of humanity. The songs and speeches of African Americans during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s and 70s that speak passionately about freedom are a testament to the often damaging incompleteness of the American dream of freedom. Yet how interesting, and how appropriate is it that the main voice of that era, Martin Luther King Jr., was a minister and man of God. He knew, perhaps better than most, that the rights African Americans were fighting for meant nothing if those rights were not endowed by God. It was the arbitrariness of humanity that was denying these rights, and King knew of the danger of replacing that arbitrariness with a different arbitrariness. Current philosophers and academics who are trying to discredit King and his ideas are typically doing so by attempting to create individual or academic authority, and for that reason alone we should suspect the motives of those who wish to place their own authority over God’s.
The American heritage of freedom can trace its roots back for thousands of years to the early Hebrews who sought freedom of worship, an idea not too unlike our right of religious freedom. Of all of our rights it is the most precious: it is in fact the very first right enshrined in the Bill of Rights, separating the arbitrariness of humanity expressed through government from the authority of God. Because our secular laws have evolved from these divine rights, they are often in accordance with each other: things that are generally “bad” in Judeo-Christian religions are generally bad or illegal in American secular law, and our secular laws allow the peaceful practice of any and every religious tradition. Nevertheless, this emphasis on the right to pursue God in whatever way God calls us still must be defended from those who would place their own authority over God’s. Otherwise, the Hebrews’ cries for freedom will be lost in the tumult of unbridled secular authority, carried out in the style of Pharoah.