Freedom, Responsibility, and Independence Day - A Reflection



Today is the 4th of July (Independence Day). Many Americans are celebrating with parades, picnics, and fireworks displays. But what does it mean to be free? What responsibilities do we have for that freedom? This year presents us with a more challenging moment. We have a Presidential race together with recent Supreme Court rulings that make many of us anxious (at the very least). One party;'s candidate has shown himself to have authoritarian tendencies, while there is concern about the age of the other (they're both old). There are concerns as well about Christian Nationalism and the merging of religion and state in unhealthy ways. Thus, there are concerns about the future of our democracy. I am by nature optimistic, so I am hopeful that our better natures will prevail. But if that is to be true, then we need to be vigilant. 

With all of this in mind, I am once again sharing an excerpt from my book Faith in the Public Square: Living Faithfully in 21st Century America (Energion Publications, 2012). As you ponder this passage, which was originally written for the Lompoc Record (2005-2008), I believe it still has resonance when it comes to protecting our democracy. I need to make note of concerns that I have about the state of our democracy. Not only is the nation more polarized than ever, but people seem more and more open to conspiracy theories that threaten our elections and governance. There is an increasing embrace of authoritarianism here in the United States and around the world. Since this addresses faith in the public square, there is growing concern about the increased presence of Christian nationalism. Let us celebrate the freedoms that come with being an American but let us be vigilant when it comes to threats to those freedoms.



                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’ve allowed at least some of our freedoms to erode. 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. But it’s worth considering 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 they are gone?

                Consider for a moment the claim made by a former President that he had the authority to designate citizens and foreign nationals as “enemy combatants,” thereby placing them beyond normal constitutional protections. 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 constitutional question concerns how limits are constructed and imposed. 

                While the Constitution and not the Declaration of Independence defines the nature of our government, the Declaration does suggest that “we the people” —not the Executive, Congress, or the Courts – ultimately decide what the government should look like. One of the principles that 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 the 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-Partier” and I do believe in a robust Federal Government, but when power is 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!

Faith in the Public Square, pp. 74-76.


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