Do you have a moment to walk away from headlines about the Donald or doughnuts? In New York a week ago we watched fireworks with that vague yearly sense of a connection between Macy’s and the Declaration of Independence. But what is freedom, anyway? Our debates aren’t worth a dime without knowing what we’re seeking to protect and nourish in our politics.
Brad Thor, the bestselling novelist, most recently of Code of Conduct, tells me: “Freedom is the ability to make the choices that I believe are best for myself and my family without the coercion of the State. It is being able to stand for what I believe in without dreading a knock upon my door in the middle of the night. It is participating in the public square, along with its many competing voices, and competing in the intellectual combat of rigorous debate without fear of reprisal — especially when my speech seeks to limit or turn back the growth of government and shine a light on the encroaching darkness of tyranny. It is, in short, my control of my life, my fortune, and my destiny.”
“In everything we do, a choice is involved,” says Sheila Liaugminas, the host of A Closer Look, a radio show on Relevant Radio, and the author of Non-Negotiable: Essential Principles of a Just Society and Humane Culture. She explains: “Riding my bike down the driveway as a young girl on a summer day, I wondered whether to turn left or right to journey out on a freewheeling adventure around the neighborhood, thinking about how either choice would have its own consequences and uniquely determine my experience, while eliminating those possibilities in the other direction.” She cites Chesterton explaining that “simply choosing one thing excludes all others. And Moses said in Deuteronomy he set before the people two possibilities, then urged them to choose wisely. Freedom is choosing wisely, always, the better way.”
Herbert Hoover said: ‘Within the soul of America is the freedom of mind and spirit in man. . . . Here alone is human dignity not a dream, but an accomplishment.’
George Nash, the author of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945, points us to Herbert Hoover on his 74th birthday in 1948: “The meaning of our word ‘America’ flows from one pure source. Within the soul of America is the freedom of mind and spirit in man. Here alone are the open windows through which pours the sunlight of the human spirit. Here alone is human dignity not a dream, but an accomplishment.”
Hoover continued: “At the time our ancestors were proclaiming that the Creator had endowed all mankind with rights of freedom as the children of God, with a free will, there was being proclaimed by Hegel, and later by Karl Marx, a satanic philosophy of agnosticism and that the rights of man came from the State. The greatness of America today comes from one philosophy, the despair of Europe from the other.”
Father Thomas Joseph White, a Dominican priest, says: “Freedom has its root in our desire for happiness. It is the amazing capacity we have to seek the truth concerning what is genuinely good for ourselves and others, to distinguish it from what is harmful or evil, and to pursue what will make us happy with wisdom and effectiveness. Freedom is what allows us to love other persons, and to be loved by them, to love the truth above all things, and to broach the mystery of God, with both genuine questioning and joyful reverence. A healthy state is a state where authentic freedom is nourished and supported, in view of the search for happiness, truth, virtuous love, and the encounter with the sacred.”
And perhaps a divine hand was guiding me when I approached another priest, a Jesuit and longtime Georgetown University professor of government, Father James Schall, S.J. Speaking with Father Schall, I worded the question thus: “What’s freedom to you?” Precisely the problem of our age!
This wording, he replied, “implies that it can be a different thing for different people, a matter of opinion. If this is true, freedom can really mean nothing. If your freedom is the opposite of mine, with no objective criterion of truth and principle to resolve differences, then the only relation we can have is war and strife, not rational agreement. Even if we promise not to hurt each other, that presumption deprives the freedom of someone who thinks he has a ‘right’ to hurt us in the name of his freedom. Freedom without truth does not exist.”
So where does this leave us?
Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical, cautions: “Human beings are not completely autonomous. Our freedom fades when it is handed over to the blind forces of the unconscious, of immediate needs, of self-interest, and of violence. In this sense, we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it. We have certain superficial mechanisms, but we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint.”
With great power comes great responsibility. This is not a trivial matter; it is a question of saving our society and saving our souls. Freedom fades when we forget that. Freedom fades when we forget what it is and let ideology coopt it, even with the best of intentions. Freedom fades when we abandon truth. Finding this in freedom will keep us free.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. She is co-author of the upcoming revised and updated edition of How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.