Freedom is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the United States, and perhaps in the world. Be it Religious Freedom, or Freedom of Speech, or the Freedom of the Press, the Freedom of Association, or any of the common conceptions of freedom that we experience in the United States, I believe that we as a nation have misunderstood the meaning of freedom to the point that that misunderstanding has become a danger to our country and the world.
Now, I’m going to say a few things in this article that might ruffle some feathers on both the right and the left of the political spectrum. I know that from the outset, and that is part of why I have not written this article before. But as we have violent protests and attacks on U.S. Embassy compounds across North Africa and the Middle East, I think it is time that we have a conversation about what freedom means. As both candidates for the office of the President are running around making vague and confusing comments on the meaning of freedom, I think we need to seek some clarity on what freedom means in the society and polity of the United States.
So, I’m going to make the four statements of my thesis, and then talk about their ramifications.
- Freedom can only exist where it is paired with responsibility. Individual freedom can only exist where it is paired with individual responsibility. Cultural freedom can only exist where it is paired with cultural responsibility. Freedom without paired responsibility is not freedom, it is anarchy.
- Freedom as it is understood in the polity of the United States is freedom from unnecessary government intrusion. The U.S. concept of freedom does not apply to any other part of our lives except for the relationship between the people and their government, and is not absolute even in those relationships.
- Freedom only has meaning when it is practiced in community. To be free and alone is simply to be alone.
- All freedom has limits. Those limits are set in two ways: where one person’s freedom abuts another person’s freedom, and where a person or group’s freedom abrogates their responsibility.
What this means is that in the political and cultural system of the United States, there is no such thing as absolute freedom. There are limits, both governmental and cultural, upon all of our freedom. Those limits are not only necessary, but beneficial to our having a society that allows us any freedom at all.
I think that we, the people of the United States, have forgotten these aspects of freedom… and that is part of the explanation for what is happening in the riots in Cairo, Yemen, and a few other places in North Africa and the Middle East (not in Benghazi Libya, however, for that appears to have been a coordinated Al Qaida inspired terrorist attack).
We cannot have freedom of speech in this country if people are not held responsible and accountable for the results of that speech. You cannot shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre… and you should not be able to publish hateful, vindictive propaganda about Islam without facing severe and significant consequences.
We cannot have religious freedom in this country, unless people are held responsible and accountable for how the use of that freedom affects the lives of those who encounter it.
We cannot have freedom of the press in this country, unless members of the press are held responsible and accountable for the accuracy and effect of their reporting.
We cannot have personal freedom in this country, unless individuals are held personally responsible and accountable for their use of that freedom.
We cannot have the right of free association in this country, unless the groups thus formed are held responsible and accountable for their actions and behavior.
For the freedoms we have, we must pay a price, and that price is personal and associational responsibility and accountability. Our society must hold people and groups accountable for the way they use the freedom of speech. Our society must hold people accountable for their use of the freedom of religion. Our society must hold people accountable for their use of the freedom of association. Our society must hold people accountable for their use of the freedom of the press. And it is not the Government that should do this accounting, but all of us. Together.
For freedom in the United States does not, and cannot mean a freedom from consequences.
Yours in faith,