Faith Commons

by Rev. Dr. George Mason

The Fourth of July is never behind us. It represents something abiding in our national consciousness. Freedom is the watchword of our collective spirit. We take for granted that we hold a shared meaning of freedom, when in fact it is an ever-contested ideal.

We mostly talk of freedom on our national holiday in terms of escape from political, economic and religious tyranny. Independence Day, we call it. We freed ourselves from our colonial British masters. We are no longer dependent on colonial support from our mother country, and neither is Britain dependent upon us for imperial and economic expansion. But if independence is the only alternative to dependence, we will look at every relationship as a threat to our freedom. Both countries continue to struggle with this a quarter-millennium hence.

Here in the U.S., the right stands guard against anyone or anything that would challenge its cultural assumptions about how society should be ordered. Government itself is seen as a threat to freedom when it works toward the equality of women, people of color, LGBTQ+ citizens, immigrants from parts of the world that don’t share the dominant language or culture, or any religion other than conservative Christianity. This spills over into economics and education, too, when the government regulates business to protect workers and the environment or requires schools to teach an American story that includes the history of Native Americans and people of African descent. 

Behind this mindset is the conviction of the Christian right that eternal and unchanging truths have been delivered to the world through biblical revelation. Such absolute truth is by its nature uncontestable. This applies to divine truth from an infallible Bible, as well as to the discredited yet durable theory of trickle-down economics, and to the traditional ordering of societal roles that are not permitted to evolve, and to too much more. For those insisting on these versions of truth, freedom is only achieved when the last threat to them has been eliminated and everyone is subject to them—with or without their consent. This understanding of freedom is necessarily undemocratic.

Some on the left have their own version of freedom that establishes the autonomy of the self as the highest authority. Others view human reason apart from religion as the only reliable source of truth. In these cases, independence is understood as the freedom from constraints to self-expression or from religious reasoning in public debate.

Our foundational documents—the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—while rooted in reason, are not hostile to religion. They enshrine the protection of individual liberties against the tyranny of the majority. They also ensure the equal rights of minority religions and those professing no religion. They do so in the interest of creating a free society, however, not just free individuals.

To that end, America is an ongoing project of enforcing equal protection under laws that by their very nature challenge traditional hierarchies—whether of caste, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexuality. When these laws are passed or enforced, what feels like newfound freedom to some feels like loss of freedom to others. The rise of Christian nationalism is a reaction to this loss of privilege that is perceived as a loss of freedom.

The Fourth of July commemorates the revolutionary intent of the Declaration of Independence. But the Declaration also uses language of restraint and forbearance rather than perpetual revolution, which is wise to consider in the midst of our culture wars today. Breaking the shackles of authoritarian morality rooted in religion can leave the individual in an anxious state. When freedom is too narrowly defined as the right of individuals to do whatever we want without restriction, we are apt to look at all relationships that involve some sort of commitment—friendships, marriages, social clubs, business partnerships, religious covenants—as potentially impinging on our freedom.

What is missing in both perspectives is a sense of our common life. We share a land and stories that make up our national experience. Neither quelling dissent, nor ignoring the concerns of our neighbors will bring about a good society. We need freedom for as much as freedom from if we are to live together well. 

The polarity of dependence and independence is a never-ending push and pull. But it does not need to be a tug of war if it is accepted as part of a healthy struggle with  interdependence. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. aptly said: We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

When the children of Israel were delivered from captivity in Egypt, they wandered through the wilderness while learning to internalize their freedom. It’s often said that it was easier to get Israel out of Egypt than to get Egypt out of Israel. The Israelites were freed from Egypt, but they were not freed from the obligations of interdependence. The giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai gave them a framework on which to build a holy community dedicated to protecting and preserving all of God’s continually-evolving Creation.

Likewise, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians: For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become enslaved to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”A healthy society strives to join freedom from oppressive forces to freedom for the wellbeing of our neighbor. If in our personal, civic and religious lives we thought of freedom as the capacity to do what is good for one another, we would begin to mend the frayed threads of our national tapestry and creep closer to that divine vision of wholeness and holiness that makes us all the more human.