“A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.”
With the mid-term elections earlier this week, I have been reflecting on politics and American culture. In particular, I have been thinking about the relationship between freedom and responsibility.
From the beginning, liberty has been the central animating force for American society. Freedom has been one of our nation’s cornerstone beliefs. However, America is in danger of losing sight of what freedom actually means, and we are losing touch with the disciplines required to sustain it.
Most concerning is that the practice of freedom is being untethered from the foundational principles of our nation. In today’s America, the idea of freedom has been hijacked by a distorted and dramatically self-centered worldview. Freedom has become self-indulgence. Liberty has become license.
Scripture specifically warns against this:
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” (Galatians 5.13)
“Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” (1 Peter 2.16)
These verses address spiritual freedom, but they also apply to social and political liberty. The point is that freedom as God intends is not permission to do what you want; rather, it is the character and courage to do what is right. Our nation has drifted away from this core principle of freedom.
The founders understood that freedom and responsibility are deeply connected. Indeed, freedom without responsibility simply becomes politicized self-interest. That is what is happening in America today. Far too many Americans vote for politicians who give them what they want, rather than leaders who do what the nation needs.
In his new book Last Call for Liberty, Os Guinness speaks of two kinds of freedom: negative freedom and positive freedom. “Put simply, negative freedom is freedom from, whereas positive freedom is freedom for and freedom to be,” he writes. “By itself, negative freedom leads only to license and would end in either chaos or tyranny. No one achieves full and genuine freedom unless they go on to experience positive freedom—the freedom to be and the freedom for whatever vision they believe is their purpose and fulfillment in life.”
Negative freedom pursues the desire to be free of constraints and coercion, but it does not pause to think about the responsibilities beyond that desire. It is the prevailing notion of freedom being embraced by most young Americans today. They simply desire freedom from all restraints.
Negative freedom (freedom from unfair restraints) is unsustainable without positive freedom (freedom to be responsible).
But positive freedom is where the debates and disagreements begin, because it requires a great deal more than freedom from restraints. Guinness makes this observation: “Positive freedom requires a vision of truth, character, ethics, and the common good—for unless we know the truth of who we are and how we are supposed to live and to live with others, we cannot hope to attain the freedom of being ourselves and offering the same freedom to others.”
True liberty requires personal responsibility. Thus the contemporary relevance of Proverbs 25.28 above: “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” Sadly, America at the present time is a nation sorely lacking in self-control.
In the 18th century, Baron de Montesquieu wrote that the heart of true and lasting liberty is something he called “the spirit of freedom.” His disciple Alexis de Tocqueville famously called it “habits of the heart.” By this they meant that for freedom to actually work, there must be responsible self-rule on the part of both citizens and civic leaders. Lose self-control, and you eventually lose freedom.
A nation and its people must be committed to the habits of the heart that produce the “obedience to the unenforceable” that true freedom requires. Such a spirit, or such habits of the heart, must be cultivated in every citizen and in every generation. It has to be inspired and passed on from leaders to followers, from parents to children, from teachers to students, and from generation to generation.
The reality of our current cultural situation is that the habits of the heart that are essential for sustaining American freedom are seriously malnourished or dying. Our culture has drifted from the founders’ definition of freedom to the point that we promote self-indulgence far more than we promote self-control; we pander to personal preference while turning our back on timeless principles.
As a result, America is like “a city broken into and left without walls.”
Os Guinness issues this warning: “Unless this spirit of freedom is transmitted successfully, including civic education, the structures of freedom simply cannot keep freedom healthy by themselves. Americans, take note: It is naive to think that freedom will survive through relying on the US Constitution alone. Unless the spirit of freedom is kept burning brightly in every generation, American freedom will die.”
What is the Christian response? What role do the followers of Jesus play in American culture? What impact can we have? Should we have?
More to come ...