Monday, July 04, 2005

The Nature of True Liberty


In the mid-1700s the American colonists grew increasingly frustrated at the level of intrusion in their lives on the part of the British government. They were taxed too much. They were subject to the government at its whim, whether that meant housing British troops in their homes or forfeiting their property for the benefit of the crown. They decided to do something about it. For more than a decade they actively resisted the rule of the British in a number of ways. Then, on July 4, 1776, they seceded from the British Empire and established themselves as a cooperating confederation of 13 independent states. They chose liberty. But it came with a high price tag.

Most of the leaders of the movement toward independence were men of wealth, privilege and position. But they valued liberty more. It is a good thing, too, because with few exceptions their fight for freedom, while winning them their precious liberty, cost them practically everything else. Perhaps it is for this reason they endeavored to insure liberty would remain a part of their legacy to future generations of Americans.

To secure this legacy, they prepared a document intended to be a guide for us. They left us the Constitution. They left it because, quite frankly, they didn't trust us to take good care of the liberty which had cost them so much. Not that this is an indictment on us in particular, they just didn't trust men, period.

"In questions of power, then, let no more be said of confidence in man," Thomas Jefferson said. "But bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution."

Subsequent Americans in positions of government were to be extremely limited in what they were allowed to do. This was the entire purpose of the Constitution.

"Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare but only those specifically enumerated," Jefferson said.

I guess these men had an incredible ability to understand the hearts of men. They knew that men who obtain power will do just about anything to keep it. Jefferson even observed that it might be necessary, periodically, to revolt again and again in order to keep true liberty. Their concerns are vindicated by history. Today, our federal government has far exceeded the scope of authority established by the Constitution.

James Madison, the author of the Constitution, once said, "I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents." Remember, according to Jefferson, Congress may only do those things specifically enumerated in the Constitution.

Yet our current federal government spends billions of our dollars on things like Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, Social Security and the like at a huge cost to the American taxpayer. The virtue of any of these programs is not at issue here. The only issue is that Congress, according to the Constitution, has no authority to do these things. The legacy of political liberty, as won by our founders, is all but gone. Fortunately for us, they left us another legacy.

The founders knew that the nature of true liberty was not something granted by man. It is granted by God. The language of the Declaration of Independence reflects this. Consider the phase, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights...." Of course the Christian nature of colonial culture demanded no explanation for the word "Creator." Toward the end of the document we find the additional phrase, "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence...." Again, the language was plain enough.

Even if you want to debate the language contained in the Declaration of Independence, it is hard to refute the words of the men themselves when they said things like ...

-- "God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed their only sure basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that those liberties are the gift of God?" -- Thomas Jefferson

-- "In addition to the distinguished character of a Patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of a Christian." -- George Washington

-- "[The Revolutionary War] connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity." -- John Quincy Adams

-- "It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom to worship here." -- Patrick Henry

-- "The religion which has introduced civil liberty is the religion of Christ and His apostles, which enjoins humility, piety, and benevolence; which acknowledges in every person a brother, or a sister, and a citizen with equal rights. This is genuine Christianity, and to this we owe our free Constitutions of Government." -- Noah Webster

You see, they understood that civil governments are only necessary because men have to be restrained from encroaching on one another's liberty due to obedience to their sinful nature. But for the sinful heart of man there would be no need for police and courts. There would be no need for armies and navies. They understood it may be necessary for men to fight other men to protect their political and civil liberty because they understood the prophet Jeremiah when he said, "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked...." As long as men are enslaved to their sin, they will violate the civil liberties of others.

And there is the key. True liberty can only come when we have been set free from sin. This is why the founders did not try to separate the principles of Christianity from civil government. They believed in liberty too much. This is why the Constitution prohibits Congress from exercising any authority over religion. The founders understood that the authority flows in the other direction.

When we celebrate America's independence we should seriously consider the words of George Washington, and "add the more distinguished character of a Christian." Only then will we honor the legacy of true liberty.

And while we can watch the erosion of the civil liberties won during the American Revolution, we can take heart in the knowledge that true liberty is secure because we have not been charged with its protection. Christ, in answering a group of Jews concerning freedom, spoke of the security of true liberty. "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."