What Is True Freedom?

Everybody wants to be free. Free from some things and free to do, well, (almost) anything we want. We love the idea of freedom, or liberty, which is why we — well, most us — in the United States (and many elsewhere) love the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Constitution + Bill of Rights. And, it’s why we need to be reminded from time to time — for example, on Memorial Day — the price that must be and has been paid for so many people to have so much freedom, especially over the past couple hundred years or so.


In chapter 2 of their book Indivisible, James Robison and Jay Richards discuss the idea of “freedom”, particularly as typically understood in American culture. They maintain that the Founding Fathers had something much more in view than simply being allowed to make choices between alternatives.

“Americans value freedom, but many have a hard time defining it…. ‘Not having to obey the rules.’ or ‘Getting to choose whatever you want.’… But if freedom means everyone does whatever he wants, then the meaner or stronger person will soon prevail, and force everybody else to do what he wants. That’s oppression, not freedom.

The problem here is a bad definition. Freedom does include choice, of course, but even the staunchest libertarian will say a free society allows people to do what they want to do as long as they don’t harm anyone else. Your freedom to fling your fist ends just short of your neighbor’s nose.

This view of freedom is still not complete, however, since it suggests that freedom and law are at odds, when in fact, the right law gives us more freedom.

The American Founders had a much broader idea in mind, called ordered liberty…. This thicker view of freedom is what distinguished the American from the French Revolution. A few of the Founders, such as Thomas Jefferson, saw the French Revolution of 1789 as continuing in the spirit of the American Revolution. John Adams, however, worried that the French experiment would end in grief. Adams was right. While the French revolutionaries toasted to liberty, fraternity, and equality, they cut off the roots of those ideals. They were vehemently anti-Christian. At one point they even dressed up a woman as the goddess ‘Reason’ and placed her on the high altar at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Their view of liberty had more to do with freedom from restraint than with the ordered liberty championed by American patriots. So it’s no surprise that the French Revolution quickly descended into terror. The French Revolutionaries started by beheading priests, royalty, and aristocrats, and ended by killing each other. Order was only restored by the military dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799.”

Not France’s finest hour, that’s for sure.

“In 1823, John Adams, writing to his fellow Founder Benjamin Rush, described the French Revolution as producing ‘all the calamities and desolations to the human race.’ The American Revolution had a quite different ending because it was based on a better view of liberty.

Anne Akiko-Meyers and the Royal Spanish Stradivarius Violin

Anne Akiko-Meyers and the Royal Spanish Stradivarius Violin

Unfortunately, even ardent defenders of freedom can talk as if freedom is just getting to do what you want to do, as if freedom and rules were on opposite sides. This is a mistake. Imagine a young girl, Mary who has never had a violin lesson. Mary can pick up a violin and grind out some sounds. No one forces her to pull the bow across any particular string, so she’s ‘free’ to play as she wants, and to drive her parents crazy in the process. But is she free to make beautiful music? Is she free to play Mozart in the New York Philharmonic? Is she free to get a full scholarship to the Juilliard School or even to entertain friends and family in the backyard? No, of course not. She can’t express either her own or the violin’s potential, because she hasn’t submitted to years of disciplined practice. She hasn’t gotten the rules for excellent violin playing into her mind, her fingers, and her bones. Only then will she be truly free to play the violin. Only then will she enjoy freedom for excellence.

So, rather than limiting our freedom, the right rules allow us to enjoy a much richer freedom. They are the rules that allow us to become what we’re supposed to become — to do what we’re designed to do.”

OK. Now, here’s the addendum from the Christian point of view:

“A free society allows us to love, seek, and enjoy God. It frees us to fulfill our other God-given purposes as free beings made in the image of God — to love our families and fellow human beings and exercise the virtues required to do that. It lets us be fruitful and multiply, and exercise our dominion as God’s stewards over His creation.

Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is like it, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Love that is coerced is not love. To fully obey Christ’s commandments, then, we must be free.”


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