My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
From ev’ry mountainside
Let freedom ring!
– Samuel Francis Smith
With July 4th just around the corner, it is worth reflecting on America’s complex relationship with the core value we memorialize on Independence Day – freedom. This year in particular the realities surrounding our national holiday raise philosophical questions about what freedom means, what we are free from and free to pursue, which aspects of freedom are personal and which are inextricably linked with other citizens and with our government.
Many Americans feel this bedrock value is under threat after learning that federal agencies have accessed the cell phone records of millions of Americans. Some worry about – and some celebrate – a court decision allowing young women the freedom to access birth control without their parents’ consent. For others the conflict in Syria looms large as an opportunity to promote and support freedom in another part of the world.
There is no easy way to apply a single interpretation of “freedom” in order to choose the right approach to these issues and others. Throughout our nation’s 237-year history, our attempts to apply the principle of freedom to new dilemmas have often been a clumsy undertaking, and it is easily argued that we didn’t live up to this principle many times as a nation. Painful failures remain visible in the rearview mirror—the treatment of Native peoples, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the enslavement and oppression of African Americans, to name a few. We employ the lessons from these tragic errors as we seek to advance true freedom and create, as the preamble of the Constitution states, “a more perfect union.”
Freedom as a value and a practice does not just happen. We constantly struggle to balance personal freedoms with societal goals, freedom from restraints with freedom that comes from collective decisions, rules applied with rights protected.
As Mark Schmitt notes in a 2001 essay, a true interpretation of American “freedom” is grounded in “a bigger, optimistic vision of what people can achieve – individually and together – when their rights and dignity are protected, and with a base of security that allows them to take risks.”
Even the youngest among us, born in the freest nation in the world, faces constraints on freedom— restrictions that, ironically, enable a more lasting realization of freedom. A child may be born in a hospital regulated by the government or at home with the help of a midwife licensed by the government. She will get a birth certificate, filed with a public office, and a Social Security number. Her parents will have to put her in a car seat if they want to drive with her anywhere.
This child may go to a day care center that gets inspected by a local agency, and she may attend a public school with a curriculum dictated by state officials. She won’t be allowed to drive on public roads or consume alcohol until a certain age. When she lands her first job (assuming it’s not a family job or an internship), her employer will be required to pay her a minimum wage.
These “restrictions” are the rules we have chosen to live by because they actually enable us all to pursue freedom. Because her birth was facilitated by licensed professionals, she is more likely to have a healthy beginning to life that gives her the freedom to live and grow and pursue opportunities. Because she got an education, she will have the freedom to inform herself before she exercises her right to vote. And because she can’t drive until she’s old enough to assume the responsibility that comes with the privilege, we all have the freedom to get from Point A to Point B safely.
As we work to perfect our Union, the freedom we profess as a founding principle requires this broad understanding and application. America’s brand of freedom has always been about more than simply living a life not tethered by obligations or restrictions. Freedom throughout our history has been enabled by choices we have made that establish a basic set of standards and responsibilities. These common standards and responsibilities enable, rather than restrict, our pursuit of freedom and happiness.
As Americans we are free to pursue our individual aspirations and inspirations because of the resources and opportunities created by our common life. In return, these individual energies contribute to and enrich our common life, generating virtuous cycles of mutual support and personal initiative.
– Theologian Tim Beach-Verhey