What Is the Freedom That Americans Celebrate Today?

I know that, no matter how many times I get a chance to preach, I’ll always sound like a professor in the pulpit. But I’ve learned enough about sermon-writing to leave out several academic references in this past Sunday’s message on “Freedom in Christ.” To contrast Christian freedom with the American civil variety, I instead kept returning to images from Boston’s Freedom Trail. But for 4th of July itself, I thought I’d share a couple of terrific histories that were in the background of my thinking:

James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom

McPherson, Battle Cry of FreedomTo set up the difference between freedom from and freedom to, I mentioned Boston’s memorial to the 54th Massachusetts, whose African American soldiers knew that

it wasn’t just that they had to be free from slavery; they had to be free to work for fair compensation, to own property, to get an education; free to vote, to hold office, to fight for their country; free to participate as citizens.

That contrast comes directly from the afterword added to the 2003 edition by McPherson. Having decided that “I left one of my principal themes unfinished,” McPherson tried to unpack the two meanings of freedom in conflict during the Civil War. Here he borrowed Isaiah Berlin’s contrast between “Negative” and “Positive Liberty”:

The idea of negative liberty is perhaps more familiar. It can be defined as the absence of restraint, a freedom from interference by outside authority with individual thought or behavior. A law requiring motorcyclists to wear a helmet would be, under this definition, to prevent them from enjoying the freedom to go bareheaded if they wish. Negative liberty, therefore, can be described as freedom from. Positive liberty can best be understood as freedom to. It is not necessarily incompatible with negative liberty, but has a different focus or emphasis. Freedom of the press is generally viewed as a negative liberty—freedom from interference with what a writer writes or a reader reads. But an illiterate person suffers from a denial of positive liberty; he is unable to enjoy the freedom to write or read whatever he chooses, not because some authority prevents him from doing so but because he cannot read or write anything. He suffers not the absence of a negative liberty—freedom from—but of a positive liberty—freedom to read and write. The remedy lies not in removal of restraint but in achievement of the capacity to read and write.

So while “southern defenders of slavery relied on this concept of negative liberty to deny the power of the national government to interfere with their right to own slaves and take them into the territories,” the Union victory was a victory for positive liberty, which “permanently transformed the U.S. Constitution, starting with the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, which abolished slavery and granted equal civil and political rights to the freed slaves.” To McPherson that fight continued into the 20th century, as the civil rights movement “breathed new life into Lincoln’s concept of positive liberty” and “libertarians and southern conservatives” sought in the 1980s and 1990s “to revive the exclusively negative form of liberty that prevailed before the Civil War….”

He might also have talked about the mid-20th century debates surrounding the New Deal, as one of his Princeton colleagues did in a 2015 book.

Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God

Kruse, One Nation under GodI’ve read pieces of Kruse’s study of “How Corporate America Invented Christian America” before, but happened to restart the book just before I wrote the “Freedom in Christ” sermon. Kruse begins with the California Congregationalist pastor James W. Fifeld, Jr., a theological liberal and political conservative who in 1935 founded a “Spiritual Mobilization” initiative in order “to check the trends toward pagan stateism, which would destroy our basic freedom and spiritual ideals.” By the 1940s, Fifeld had become the darling of evangelical oilman J. Howard Pew, Jr. and other anti-New Deal business leaders who agreed with National Association of Manufacturers president H.W. Prentis that “the virus of collectivism” could only be stopped by “a revival of American patriotism and religious faith.”

For the 175th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Fifeld and his business associates formed a new Committee to Proclaim Liberty that coordinated “Independence Sunday” celebrations for July 1, 1951. Among other activities, the committee sponsored a nationwide sermon competition on the theme of “Freedom Under God.” Clergy from around the country took to the pulpit to attack the “socialism” of the New Deal. The winner (an Illinois Baptist) warned that Americans “have been perfectly willing to pass all kinds of legislation limiting the other fellow’s liberty for our benefit,” through the growth of government programs and bureaucracy. A Congregationalist from the same state tried to flip one of Franklin Roosevelt’s most famous speeches on its head:

People have been encouraged to believe that a benevolent government exists for the sole purpose of ministering to the selfish interest of the individual. We have achieved the four freedoms: Freedom to ask; freedom to receive; freedom to be a leech; and freedom to loaf.

Tellingly, freedom to was associated with the vices of a godless society (“pseudo-freedom, or actual slavery,” said the organizers), while the true “Freedom under God” was a freedom from government control and interference. That assumption also shaped the interpretation of American origins promoted by Fifeld, Pew, et al. As Kruse points out, the committee encouraged public readings of the preamble to the 1776 Declaration, but left out the rest of that document:

The decision to focus solely on the preamble was in some ways a natural one, as its passage were certainly the most famous and lyrical in the document. But doing so allowed organizers to reframe the Declaration as a purely libertarian manifesto, dedicated to the removal of an oppressive government. Those who read the entire document would have discovered, to the consternation of the committee, that the founding fathers followed the high-flown prose of the preamble with a long list of grievances about the absence of government and rule of law in the colonies…. In the end, the Declaration was not a rejection of government power in general but rather a condemnation of the British crown for depriving the colonists of the government they needed.

So as you celebrate this Independence Day, let me encourage you to reflect not only on how those who are “free in Christ” should relate to the nation-state, but just what kind of political, legal, economic, and other freedoms we value as American citizens.