Independence Day and the Meaning of Freedom

Here are some thoughts on the 4th of July that I emailed to my team at work earlier today.

This fourth of July is poignant for me, as I celebrate America’s cherished freedoms while also realizing how fragile and precarious those freedoms are. Will the American experiment—that great, though imperfect, fusion of Christian and Enlightenment ideals—be able to withstand the assault on all that is good, true, and beautiful, that is being unleashed by the God-haters of our world? Will the nation that survived civil war, foreign invasion, and countless natural disasters, be able to survive the current ideological revolution that strikes at the heart of what it means to be human? I don’t know, but as Peter Leithart reminded us in Touchstone, we have no promise that any earthly nation will last forever; rather, our promise is that God’s kingdom will prevail. But as long as Providence sees fit to preserve our nation, I never want to take for granted the blessings we enjoy. What a better time than today to express that gratitude.

If we are to be effective in the battle to preserve our cherished freedoms, our first order of business must be to think clearly about what it truly means to be a free people. And what better time than today to take a contemplative turn and think deeply about the meaning and consequences of liberty. Or at least, that is what I thought this morning after listening to last week’s “Friday Feature” on the Mars Hill app (a great resource, by the way, with lots of free content for non-subscribers). During this feature, Ken Myers noted that “Independence Day…should be an occasion to reflect on the meaning of freedom. This Sunday, in many American churches, there will probably be sermons preached about freedom, but I’m not sure how many of them will actually encourage discernment about what freedom really is.” Myers then proceeded to cite an article by John Betz that appeared in Church Life Journal a couple years ago. In that article, Betz mused that “in countless churches across our country, I dare say on the basis of some experience, American independence and spiritual freedom are not infrequently confused, even idolatrously so.” While American independence may have resulted in, or created the conditions for, certain types of spiritual freedom, the two are not merely interchangeable.

The conflation of spiritual freedom with American independence has long disquieted me after noticing that many of the songs in standard American hymnals take Biblical motifs about spiritual freedom and apply them to the achievements of civic nationalism. Some of these hymns include verses that explicitly claim that American political freedom is synonymous with spiritual freedom, along with various auxiliary ideas that follow from this conflation, including

  • Americans are God’s chosen people in a way that believers in other countries are not;
  • The United States’ government is God’s chosen form of government;
  • American wars are a form of salvific suffering and national redemption;
  • Biblical imagery about the New Jerusalem can be appropriated to the United States;
  • America has brought heaven to earth;

As an antidote to this type of national idolatry, it is always helpful to go back to ancient origins of freedom. What I’m about to say will be familiar territory to those who read my article, “The Dark Side of Libertarian Freedom (Part 3),” but it is still worth reiterating that in the world of classical antiquity, a polis (community, city, political order) could be said to be free when it enjoyed the type of virtuous self-government that forestalled tyranny or anarchy. Similarly, a man could be said to be free when he enjoyed the leisure to study wisely, in order to forestall epistemic vices like prejudice, haste, ignorance, and sophistry. The qualifiers “virtuous” and “wisely” are crucial here, for reasons explained by Patrick Deneen in his book, Why Liberalism Failed.

The Greeks especially regarded self-government as a continuity from the individual to the polity, with the realization of either only possible if the virtues of temperance, wisdom, moderation, and justice were to be mutually sustained and fostered. Self-governance in the city was possible only if the virtue of self-governance governed the souls of citizens; and self-governance of individuals could be realized only in a city that understood that citizenship itself was a kind of ongoing habituation in virtue, through both law and custom…. Liberty was thus thought to involve discipline and training in self-limitation of desires, and corresponding social and political arrangements that sought to inculcate corresponding virtues that fostered the arts of self-government.

As Deneen shows, this relationship between freedom and virtue meant that classical ideas of liberty were teleological (goal-oriented). This is even reflected in the etymology of the Greek word for freedom, which is connected to the idea of flourishing towards an end. The relationship between freedom and virtue meant that the Greeks gave attention to the ultimate good towards which all virtue is finally directed. Thus, for both Plato and Aristotle, political freedom is not possible without a standard of objective goodness that is both transcendent and antecedent to political freedom. This standard of objective goodness is not merely the province of individuals alone; rather, goodness is a shared quality that is pursued communally. By facilitating an ordered society, the institutions of state help us pursue goodness, and can offer a context for cultivating the virtuous habitus necessary for a stable society.

As moderns, we recoil at the idea that government should have a hand in cultivating civic virtue, let alone that it should try to make us good. But for Plato and Aristotle, the alternative is to live in communities that remain stranded at the level of beasts, lacking the civic virtues that forestall the unfreedom of tyranny or anarchy. A polis without virtuous laws fails to raise citizens above their untutored state, leaving us to behave like the Cyclopes, which Homer describes as having “no assemblies for the making of laws, nor any settled customs, but living in hollow caverns in the mountain heights, where each man is a lawgiver to his children and his wives, and nobody gives a jot for his neighbors.” The great Roman political thinkers built on the Greek heritage, arguing that only virtue could save the Republic from collapsing into a corrupt oligarchy, or save it from the whims of demagogues, revolutionaries, populist uprisings, and would-be dictators. Thus, the freedom of self-government was integrally tied to virtue, with a web of multiple reciprocities linking the rulership of the self to the rulership of the household to the rulership of the polis. Virtuous rulership at all these levels created the conditions for human flourishing and thus true freedom.

Christianity takes this teleological idea of freedom and advances it a stage further than the classical Greeks, showing that the horizon of freedom is a cultivation of virtue and pursuit of goodness that is ultimately grounded in the Logos. For example, St. Paul taught that true freedom can only be found in Christ (John 8:36), the ultimate ground of objective goodness and virtue. Consequently, only by being “slaves to righteousness” can we attain true liberty (Rom 6:18; 6:22; 1 Cor. 7:22). To be truly free to pursue the goodness of Christ, one must engage in the arts of self-limitation and restriction, both at the level of the individual and society.

This biblical teaching entailed the idea that liberty exists when a person or a community is regulated by those virtues (reconceived in Christian thought around the fruits of the spirit) that enable a person or community to enjoy well-ordered freedom, of which salvation is the epitome. Such freedom is necessary to forestall the tyranny of the passions and the bondage of disordered desire. Thus, the biblical conception of freedom, like that of the Greeks and Romans, is outcome-oriented and remains grounded in the concept of human flourishing. And, as in classical thought, it continued to affirm that freedom for the sake of freedom (disconnected from the proper ends of human life and society) is bondage.

Throughout the history of Christendom, Christian thinkers have teased out the political implications of this biblical view of freedom. Many of these thinkers, which we now label as “conservative,” argued that it is impossible to have a truly free society without a foundation in transcendent goodness. These thinkers suggest that while the law cannot and should not directly force us to be virtuous (after all, even in the Old Testament theocracy, not every vice was a crime), lawmakers can still promote virtue by organizing public relations in a way that disincentivizes evil and normalizes well-regulated behaviors. Moreover, lawmakers can strive to create sufficient stability for Christian institutions (churches, families, schools, etc.) to flourish.

These themes were a particular focus of Anglo-American conservatism, as articulated by Sir John Fortescue and his successors. Russell Kirk summarized much of this tradition in his six canons of conservatism, one of which is “belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience,” and the consequent notion that “political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.” Without this moral and religious underpinning, freedom collapses into mere choice, and the enlargement of options available to the individual, even as the common good collapses into merely the aggregate of private goods.

See Also

An example of freedom as mere enlargement of options is Katy Perry’s 2010 hit “Firework.” The song plays with various images of restriction from a plastic bag to a closed door, and contrasts that with images in which one’s range of action is enlarged like a firework. The locus of redemption is found, not by pursuing what is objectively good as in the classical and Christian conception of freedom, but by looking inward and then exploding like a firework:

Boom, boom, boom
Even brighter than the moon, moon, moon
It’s always been inside of you, you, you
And now it’s time to let it through

During my celebrations today, I will not be listening to Katy Perry’s music. Instead, I will be reading these wise words from G.K. Chesterton:

We are fond of talking about “liberty”; but the way we end up actually talking of it is an attempt to avoid discussing what is “good.” … The modern man says, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace unadulterated liberty.” This is, logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.”

My friends, I wish you all a blessed Independence Day.

Scroll To Top