Freedom, Responsibility, and Independence Day

It is the Fourth of July and I thought I'd share an excerpt from the book that I'm writing -- actually a book that is based on the columns I wrote for the Lompoc Record between 2006 and 2008.  Here is a revised version of a piece written for the Fourth.  


Freedom, Responsibility, and Independence Day

          Every year, on the fourth day of July, Independence Day makes itself felt in the United States.  It is a reminder that the United States was founded on the principles of liberty and happiness for all – at least in theory.  In point of fact, we’ve not always lived up to our ideals, but in principle we are a people committed to equal justice and opportunity.  These commitments are enshrined in the words of our founding documents.  The Declaration of Independence insists that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
These freedoms have at times been abridged and set aside in the name of security or the defense of the nation, and often we’ve come to regret those decisions.  Living as we do at a time when the government has taken steps to limit certain civil rights and freedoms, questions have been raised about the usefulness and constitutionality of these actions.  Threatened from outside, or so we believe, we have allowed at least some of our freedoms to be eroded.    
The Declaration of Independence insists that the government serves at the pleasure of the people, but at times the executive branch has taken on imperial tendencies – though the degree to which this is true may depend on who is President of the United States (when I first wrote this essay for the Lompoc Record George W. Bush was President and I was less tolerant of his efforts to expand executive power than perhaps I am today when I’m more in tune with the person who is currently holding that office).  But, it’s worth considering that the implications of an expansion of power undertaken in the name of security.  How much is too much?  What liberties are being lost and will we be able to reclaim them once their gone?   
Consider for a moment former the claim made by President Bush’s that he had the authority to designate citizens and foreign nationals as “enemy combatants,” thereby placing them beyond normal constitutional protections (President Obama has not really backed off this claim either).  I agree with John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute that this is possibly a dangerous and unconstitutional act.  
“In a world where the president has the power to label anyone, whether a citizen or permanent resident, an enemy combatant and detain that person indefinitely without trial, no liberty exists and everyone is potentially an ‘enemy combatant’.”
This isn’t a matter of partisan politics (from what I know of John Whitehead – he’s a conservative); it’s about protecting our liberties as a people – no matter who the President is.  The problem is that the then President seemed especially concerned with claiming power for himself, and again the current President has not let go of these prerogatives.      
Now, to claim that we are a free people doesn’t mean that there are no limits to our freedoms – for instance I’m not sure if the Second Amendment really does allow anyone and everyone to walk around with an automatic weapon.  The issue is with how limits are constructed and imposed. 
Now the Constitution and not the Declaration of Independence, defines the nature of our government, but the Declaration does suggest that that the people -- not the Executive, Congress, or the Courts – who ultimately decide what the government should look like.  One of the principles that the both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence established was that government is accountable to the people.  Thus, the nation’s rules and regulations that are imposed by government should protect not the elite but the people as a whole.  Thus, traffic and environmental laws and bans on smoking in public buildings are appropriate because they protect and serve the common good.    
To temper our desire for freedom as well as give some religious input, it’s appropriate to consider the words of St. Paul who suggested that while freedom is great, it’s not always beneficial (1 Corinthians 10:23).  Anarchy is freedom, but it usually ends with chaos and destruction.    Because we often think of freedom in individualistic terms – “I can do what I want, when I want” – we often forget how our lives intersect.  As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes:  “With freedom is born responsibility.”   And this goes both ways – without freedom we can’t be held responsible and without a sense of responsibility freedom leads to unfortunate ends – if not for me then for my neighbor. 
            When I think of the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, I think of my right to speak my mind, publish my thoughts, worship as I please, assemble when and where I wish, and petition the governing authorities.   These First Amendment rights should be treasured and protected, but even here there are limits, for I must remember that my freedoms must be balanced by those of my neighbor.  This concern for the needs of the other brings us back to the overarching principle enshrined in the commandment to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.  Whether self-imposed or not, limits must be motivated by a concern for the common good.
            Our Founders understood the need for checks and balances.  Although they were, in general, optimistic people who trusted the People to make wise decisions, they also understood the ever-present potential for the powerful to abuse the power entrusted to them.  This was why they preferred decentralized government.  I’m no “Tea-Partyer” and I do believe in a robust Federal Government, but when power is increasingly being entrusted to the hands of a few, whether government or corporate hands, it would be appropriate to remember our calling to balance freedom and responsibility – even on the Fourth of July!   


mykey said…
I just stumbled on your blog page as I was researching. I must say that your writings are well writen and crafted.
John said…
I don't think I agree that the Founders favored decentralize government. The Constitution was in point of fact an attempt to centralize the existing fractious and ineffectual decentralized government operating under the Articles of Confederation.

The genius of the experiment was that its centralizing objective was leavened with multiple layers of checks and balances so as to interfere with any attempt by one or a few to gain absolute dictatorial control over the mechanism of the central government.

It cannot be disputed that the Constitution was intended to wrest control of certain Federal functions from the states because the States were incapable of working together to serve the interests of the people. Nor can it be seriously denied that the Constitution was open-ended as to exactly what the scope and limits of those Federal prerogatives would be.

Article I, Section 8 as well as the Preamble indicate that the federal government is empowered to “provide for the general welfare” and to “secure the blessings of liberty,” These are fairly broad and open-ended grants of power. For example how can a program such as national heath care not be considered as being within the scope of these powers?

It can be argued that the 10th Amendment limits this grant of power but in truth it does not; it merely provides that what powers are not granted to the federal government are reserved to the states and to the people. Such a reservation must be construed logically in light of both the already stated broad grant of powers and the implicit ratification of such exercises of power suggested in the election and/or re-election of government officers.

On the one had the power- granting provisions are so broad as to render the reservation clause meaningless, and on the other, when we re-elect officers who have approved new and previously unexercised powers do we not, acting as “the people” at once both exercise our own reserved powers and affirm and ratify the exercise by our representatives?
Brian said…
mykey - Bob is a very good communicator. His work brings honor to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Unfortunately, he is often wrong. I advocate liberation theology..... liberation from Barthian nonsense ;-)

Seriously though, I make a point to check out everything he writes.

ps - I'm being serious about his work bringing honor to my denomination.
Robert Cornwall said…

my use of the word decentralize might not have been the clearest usage. My point was that the separation of powers means that there is not just one center of federal power. I wasn't really thinking of states versus federal power. In that sense, the Constitution does draw more power to the center than was present in the Articles of Confederation, which was a failure. What is interesting is that many of those arguing for states rights seem to have something in mind close to the Articles, which failed!!

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