Freedom: What’s the Big Deal?

Why is freedom important?

This question has been rolling around in my mind since the beginning of nationwide shutdowns in March.

What is it about freedom that makes it the pinnacle of values in American society? Why is it that we esteem it above health, above safety, above prosperity? Was it worth the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence pledging their Lives, their Fortunes, and their sacred Honor together, and the sacrifice of thousands of our own men in the effort?

This is not a new question. Political philosophers for hundreds of years have grappled with the best conditions for human flourishing, from Plato and Aristotle to Locke and Rousseau to our modern thinkers and philosophers.

What all of history and all of philosophizing come down to is this:

Freedom matters because it honors the dignity inherent in every individual – not as an agent of the state, but as a human being created in the image of God. 

These are the principles on which this republic was founded, stated with beautiful clarity in the Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” goes the familiar phrase, “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.”

The Declaration continues:

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

The Declaration makes two principles very clear in those statements: 1) that all men and women have inherent rights that come not from government, but from the Creator; and 2) that governments are instituted for the specific purpose of securing those rights. 

A good and just government seeks to order society in such a way that men and women are protected from the interference of other men and women in their daily lives and decisions. Government’s role is to secure and to protect our God-given rights – not to act as the beneficiary of those rights themselves, to be suspended at a moment’s notice.

It was toward this end that years later the Bill of Rights was drafted, not to grant people an exhaustive list of rights, but to enumerate those especially important rights that the government has a duty to protect. In other words, the Bill of Rights is a document to refrain the state from interfering on freedoms that the people inherently possess.

For if the state is supreme, and man and woman are mere agents of that supreme state, then man and woman have no choice but to bow to the dictates of the state. Their work, their success, their profit, their very lives are all made a contribution to and a possession of that state. All things are unto the state. 

In this scenario, the state is god. As god, it has any and all rights to do with you what it will. States which have elevated themselves to this god-like status have wreaked havoc on humanity, most recently witnessed by the tyrannies of the twentieth century in Nazi Germany under Hitler, Soviet Russia under Stalin, and Communist China under Mao.

States such as these utterly offend and desecrate the individual dignity of men and women by stripping them of their freedom. Their assault against individual freedom is a direct attack on the image of God in which every person was created. 

But if man and woman are free agents – free because they were made in the image of God, given freedom of choice to serve Him (the true Supreme) or not during their time on this earth – then the state must cede its authority and recognize that freedom. Not only must it recognize it, but a good and just government would seek to honor and protect it.

In this scenario, men and women are free to pursue happiness. Individuals are entrusted and empowered to make decisions that will lead to their own prosperity and well-being, because well-being will look different from one individual to the next. When a state acts solely as protector and defender of rights, rather than as benefactor, men and women have the freedom to risk, to achieve, and to contribute to their communities in love.

Freedom matters because it honors the dignity inherent in every individual – not as an agent of the state, but as a human being created in the image of God. 

Why does freedom matter now, at this time in history, in the midst of a novel contagious virus? Why do we care about our liberties more than the possibility of catching a virus – more than the idea of health complications and death?  

Freedom matters now, in this COVID-19 world, because government rarely (if ever) relinquishes power it lays hold of “temporarily”. The question is not if we will survive COVID-19, but how. 

In the past six months of shutdowns, governors have been reaching for power that does not belong to them. They are suspending rights indefinitely – specifically those First Amendment rights to assemble and to worship. They are reaching for power in unconstitutional ways, by undermining the separation of powers and sidestepping the legislative process our Constitution established as a safeguard of our liberties. 

What kind of country will we have once pandemic fears are behind us? Will we have maintained a constitutional republic bequeathed to us by those original founders? Or will we have surrendered those safeguards of freedom in the name of health and safety? 

Men and women are not agents of the state. Government is not the beneficiary of our rights. The state’s role is not even to ensure our longest and healthiest potential life span. The state’s role – as defined by the Declaration and enumerated in the Constitution – is to safeguard our liberties so that we may chase the life we imagine.

If we do not keep the government in check as it grabs power in crisis, if we do not hold fast to our founding principle of freedom, we may very well find ourselves at the end of the crisis with far fewer freedoms to engage in that pursuit of happiness. We may find that it will soon be the state deciding our happiness for us, and that is a dark road to despotism and tyranny that we dare not tread.