© 2016 Robert Osburn
Ask any of the one million or so international college students what describes their host country, USA. The word that leaps out of their mouths is “freedom.” They relish it as much as their American classmates.
But something is perilously wrong in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave: heightened racial discord, a nonstop epidemic of illegal drugs, increasingly fragmented families and communities (especially amongst those without college degrees), and political corruption fueling a 2016 presidential election train wreck. Is freedom failing?
Answering that question means that we also have to ask, “What brings order?” We know enough about human society to know that when freedom marries order, the offspring is harmony. When the two separate, the predictable condition is either chaos or dictatorship. If the USA has jettisoned traditional sources of moral order, then freedom may be failing, but only because it is not attached to its natural companion, order.
The looming failure of freedom in the USA is good news to dictators like Venezuela’s Nicholas Maduro, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who never had any use for political freedom. But, since more than half of our foreign students hail from societies heavily influenced by Confucianism (e.g., China, Japan, South Korea), freedom’s apparent breakdown in the USA is bad news for them (though they may not realize it).
Here’s why: As a prerequisite to social harmony, Confucianism demands obedience to those in social hierarchy above you. Freedom must be sacrificed to order so as to achieve harmony. The Chinese Communist Party uses this 2500 year-old theme to their advantage: “If you resist the Party and demand political freedom, you will shatter social harmony!”
Sacrifice order to freedom, and you get a bad version of the USA (America). Sacrifice freedom to order, and you get the PRC (China). One begets anarchy, the other tyranny.
Is the human race destined to one or the other? The great 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) thought so, writing that, absent the state’s control, the life of human beings would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This most basic political truth about a fallen, sinful world could be the final political truth and thus good reason for idealists amongst us to despair.
But, it’s not the final political truth.
The real final political truth is that after Jesus returns a second time, freedom and order will be simultaneously maximized. Thus (and this “thus” is very important), because this is the case, we ought to live lives and create political systems that approximate the World to Come.
Our students don’t know that the American political experiment was built on a political truth that owes itself to Jesus more than Hobbes: People made virtuous by religion will be able to be free because that are personally governed by Jesus. Only in the 1960s was this marriage of freedom and order, embodied in a Christian cultural consensus, rejected by a majority of Americans. In my lifetime, American order began to be sacrificed to freedom, with the increasing social and political disorder we now take for granted.
America’s founders understood perfectly what Os Guinness calls the “Golden Triangle of Freedom” and about which Eric Metaxas has recently written: Freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; faith requires freedom. They understood this because, thanks to our Puritan founders and especially to the First Great Awakening (1730 to 1750), they were deeply familiar with the Bible. There, the Apostle Paul wrote one of my favorite texts: “You, my brothers, were called to be free, but do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13). Those liberated by Christ from slavery to sin are tasked with orderly self-government that seeks our neighbor’s welfare over our own. Others have called this “ordered liberty.”
This matters not only to international students who deserve to know what made the American political experiment such a success for 200 years and why our idolatrous fascination with liberty at the expense of ordered self-government imperils our future prospects. It also matters to Americans attracted to leftwing and rightwing versions of libertarianism, as well as those who welcome an authoritarian pledge to restore economic and political order to Americans left behind. Finally, it matters to the church, first, because churches must create disciples of Jesus Christ whose capacity for ordered liberty makes them worthy of the American political experiment, and, second, because “ordered liberty” is a central apologetic for Christian faith.
Let me put this essay simply, by way of recap:
- Because of sin, societies naturally either maximize freedom (anarchy) or order (tyranny), but never simultaneously.
- Since societies that are anarchic or tyrannical fall far short of the human ideal, we humans despair.
- But, because Jesus Christ will someday return to establish a perfect world that simultaneously maximizes order and freedom, we should become the kind of people worthy of such a society (as were America’s Founders).
- Following Jesus makes us worthy of and enables us to help create such a society.
International students who flock to America for freedom will, if current trends persist, increasingly find chaos. Freedom’s failure is certain, less they and masses of Americans embrace the One who gave His life to liberate them for a holy, self-governed life. Then, and only then, will freedom succeed and harmony be restored. Freedom need not fail.