Liberty Asterisked

© 2014 Robert Osburn

When asked what they like best about the USA, international students invariably answer: “Freedom!”   Over a delightful lunch recently, one of my international mentees volunteered that during his year here he felt free of his government’s prying eyes. 

There is something delightfully open and inviting about the USA, especially when you are young and eager to explore, discover, and take risks.

But, what most international students don’t know is that the liberty they so love, till the past half century, came with constraints, limits, and conventions. It is emphatically not the wild, riotous, “Don’t tell me what to do!” version that emerged in the 60s.  In other words, when we talk about freedom and liberty, we need to add an asterisk (*). 

Real freedom is not unbounded, but whether you believe that or not has everything to do with your anthropology, that is, your view of the human being.  Is liberty, as Supreme Court Justice Kennedy has announced in several of his court decisions, “the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life?”   In one sense, the answer is “yes,” if we mean that the human conscience should not be coerced.  But, do we humans really have the power to define such monumental realities?  Kennedy seems to be suggesting that we have Promethean abilities to craft the Universe in our image, in our likeness.  Can we actually bend reality to fit our individual wills?  A lot of college students want to think so.

I’m certain Justice Kennedy does not believe that we can bend reality to our individual wills, but his language is far too generous for criminals not to take comfort.  After all, am I not trying to bend reality to fit my interests when I steal someone else’s money, or their wife, or their livelihood?   Since I take biblical truth seriously, I assert that there are fixed realities that God has built into the Universe---among them, natural law---that I cannot change.

Not only cannot I not bend reality to fit my interests or desires, but freedom carries with it certain real obligations to others.  I’m fond of quoting Galatians 5:13: “You, my brothers, were called to be free, but do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another in love.”  This passage is at the heart of the powerful political and social philosophy that shaped the American understanding of liberty.  Our freedom is constrained, that is, asterisked by obligations to consider the interests of our neighbors as highly as we consider our own (Philippians 2:4).  I have to consider my neighbor’s desire to keep a lawn that I don’t drive over, or to be free from the loud music I might want to blare from my home, or to be able to join with other neighbors to achieve positive social outcomes that seem to be in the best interests of all.  Sometimes my neighbors’ interests supersede my personal freedom, and that’s as it should be.

In case you didn’t notice, this view of freedom sits very uncomfortably with libertarianism, the political philosophy that government should be minimally concerned with ensuring our individual freedoms to live as we want, as long as we don’t hurt others.  The libertarian philosophy is very appealing to college students because most don’t realize that there are a million ways to hurt others indirectly. 

Sexual license is the classic illustration of indirect harm caused by unconstrained freedom.  Jane becomes pregnant with her boyfriend, and, with his encouragement, goes for a painless abortion.  Problem solved, freedom ensured. 

Or, so Jane and her boyfriend think.  In reality, the tiny human fetus loses the right to life, an incalculable harm.  Later, when Jane marries, she will likely carry around the memory of that abortion and, as often is the case, the searing memory will harm her marriage.  And there is the harm to later children she will bear, because, if they learn about her abortion, they may feel deprived of a brother or sister.  And, if Jane continues to experience secret sadness over the abortion, she may well harm others by her contorted efforts to shove the secret underground.

Actually, if you think about it, all sin harms others in manifold ways.  There is no private sin that I can enjoy with perfect, unconstrained liberty.  It all comes back to bite in some way or another.  Professor J. Budziszewski at the University of Texas-Austin calls this “the revenge of conscience” (see his 1999 book by the same name).

Unconstrained liberty, when expanded to a whole society, begins the slow descent into anarchy, which is what happens when we defy the order God has built into the Universe while demanding maximum freedom for ourselves.  Liberty without an asterisk is not pretty.

My international friends need to know that the USA was not built on that idea of absolute liberty; instead, it was built on the constrained version of liberty, the one that says that humans best serve their neighbors by being tethered ourselves to Jesus Christ who commands that we love one another.    There is good reason why the Apostle Paul says in Romans 6 that believers in Christ become “slaves of righteousness.” God never designed us to be perfectly and totally free.  Instead, says Paul, the believer chooses, through faith in Christ, be free of slavery to sin, with all its direct and indirect destructive powers, so that she can directly and indirectly bless her neighbors as another kind of slave.

The USA became the world’s strongest and most desirable nation because this fundamental idea of constrained liberty, however imperfectly, shaped our society for several hundred years.  When international students talk about their love of freedom, we celebrate, but we must remind them that freedom is never unconstrained, never just about pursuing our own interests.  Rather, true freedom has an asterisk: It means being under the reign of Jesus Christ who commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves.