Though out of town last week during our observation of Independence Day, I couldn’t help but ruminate on Abraham Lincoln’s assertion as he surveyed the blood-covered fields of Gettysburg that we were a nation “conceived in liberty” and urged upon those gathered there a “resolve 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.” Was that freedom birthed, or do we need another one?
As I read about and participate in debates over “positive liberty” protected by the 14th Amendment (its protection of abortion, same-sex “marriage,” women going topless at the community pool) and “negative liberty” (not designing cakes or designing floral arrangements for certain weddings, not facilitating certain adoptions, not providing certain medical or counseling services), I’ve come to believe we need a serious discussion about liberty.
Fear of Liberty Among the Left
Many on the Left appear to be afraid of too much liberty. They claim a liberty to live any way they please, but to obtain that liberty, they restrict and threaten the liberty of all who disagree with them when it comes to our societal interactions. Their advocacy for a liberty at the expense of everyone else’s liberty shows they have an incoherent and inconsistent understanding of liberty.
Fear of Liberty Among Evangelical Christians
But, to me, it seems that many Christians have a similar problem. They are afraid of too much liberty because some on the Left (or perhaps simply some pro-LGBT business) may not serve them or might stop doing business with their businesses, at least in certain regards.
A Starting Place for the Debate
If we could all agree to eschew for a minute the chronological snobbery of modernism that says we know better than those who have come before us, I would like to suggest that we begin with a consideration of liberty as our Founding Fathers understood it and go from there.
A Short History on Liberty Leading to the Constitution
Some will dismiss the Founding Fathers’ understanding of liberty out of hand because of slavery and the legal and cultural limitations placed upon women and others who view themselves as a discrete minority. Such a reaction is natural and understandable, but because they didn’t get everything right doesn’t mean they got everything wrong.
Our Founding Fathers were knowledgeable of history; for the most part, wise; and largely operated out of a biblical ethic and understanding of the sinful nature of human beings. The context in which they framed our Constitution was that in which two institutions—the state and the Catholic Church—sought for centuries to exert authority over the other and over the whole domain of life.
But with the Reformation, John Calvin and those like Abraham Kuyper who followed in his train argued that the jurisdictions of civil government and the church were limited and that there was a third “sphere” within our human existence, that of various personal and interpersonal relations among private citizens. Clearly, there were struggles and tensions over the centuries related to how these three spheres overlapped and intersected, but there was now a “space” in Western civilization between the previous two dominating spheres.
Liberty Under the U.S. Constitution and Its Evolution
The United States may have taken the first best crack at balancing and defining those three spheres in the U.S. Constitution. It delegated only certain powers to the federal government that united the disparate states, leaving all residual powers and liberties to the states. It prohibited any particular religious sect from winning the patronage of the federal government. And the states then approved a Bill of Rights to affirm that the federal government had only delegated powers.
Here is the important part, though: The Bill of Rights did not extend to private interactions in that third, social sphere. There, liberty was to prevail.
In this, I believe they got the balance right, leaving it up to the people to regulate themselves and their interactions with one another. This was the liberty for which they were willing to give their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.
There were, of course, criminal laws that encroached upon liberty; even a free people had to decide what abuses of liberty deserved criminal sanction.
However, over time, those free people began to use their liberty to enact laws that encroached upon liberties not in the nature of crimes that the majority thought were being abused in order to compel otherwise private interactions.
I understand that, too. If businesses wouldn’t let me eat in their restaurants, stay in their motels, or work for them simply because I was a Christian or because of where I worked, my natural reaction would be to “want a law” to “protect me.” And, to a very real degree, that is what Christians want when they insist on a religious liberty exemption from some of the proposed “civil rights” laws they don’t like.
And now everyone tries to use the law to bend others to their will in interactions with each other.
John Adams Got It Right and the Reason He Did
There is much more that could be said and needs to be said, but I suggest that the only resolution lies in the Liberty Bell’s inscription, “Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof,” taken from Leviticus 25:10. It suggests to us something important—that our Founding Fathers understood the fount and foundation of liberty to be a biblical ethic and biblical understanding of human nature.
President John Adams later put it this way: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.” George Washington had earlier said much the same thing in his farewell address.
Throw out a transcendent source of ethics and a right understanding of human nature, and society soon degenerates into every person or group of persons for themselves against all the others. That much Thomas Hobbes got right in Leviathan, and that’s what America now seems to have.
What Would Lincoln Say to Us Now?
While our Founding Fathers did not apply that ethic correctly in all situations, I suspect they would say to us, and I think Lincoln would now say to us, “A new birth of freedom doesn’t require new structures of government and more laws, but better people living by a better understanding of the biblical ethic and human nature, and a better application of that understanding to the situations we now face.”
Of course, what Lincoln might say to us now is speculation, but it’s worth noting and pondering that more than four hundred years before his famous Gettysburg utterance, protestant reformer John Wycliffe said much the same thing: “The Bible is for the government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
I think the two were on the same page.
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.
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