I’ve seen quite a few satirical sketches recently that depict American Conservatives and Liberals agreeing on most of their political viewpoints at a very basic level. Most are quite humorous and display far more truth than most would like to admit. One principle that I believe Conservatives and Liberals seem to agree upon is that freedom is vanishing. Different groups may site different areas from which they believe freedom to be vanishing and each seeks to blame the other for the disappearance, but it holds true that both sides agree it is disappearing.
I believe this to be the case as well. Where has our freedom and liberty gone and why? Who is to blame? Is there a political party on which we can place the blame? How about an institution? I think the answer is simpler than that and I think it was given around 175 years ago.
Immediately following the French Revolution in February of 1848, an economist by the name of Frédéric Bastiat wrote, “And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgement of faith in God and His works.”1
Bastiat creates an inseparable connection between God and liberty, and in so doing, provides the answer to our earlier question. If “liberty is an acknowledgement of faith in God”, then it follows that without God, liberty cannot be sustained. Bastiat did not elaborate on why he believed this to be true and so my task here is to detail why I agree with him.
I will pause here to ensure we all begin from a place of common understanding. Liberty, and its closely associated but ultimately different sibling freedom, are frequently discussed but rarely defined and often used synonymously. I’ll be using the more traditional meanings of these two words which are defined as follows:
Freedom - An internal construct. It’s defined primarily by the power you have to choose your attitude in any circumstance and secondarily by that power to act in those circumstances
Liberty - Defined at a societal level. It’s a state of being free from oppressive restrictions on actions, behaviors, or beliefs
To better understand how granting individual liberty could be an acknowledgement of faith in God, consider the ramifications of promoting it in a society. The benefits are mostly well known; individual growth and prosperity, massive cultural diversity living in relative harmony, pursuit and development of numerous systems of belief and behavior, and an ability for an individual to make a life for themselves in ways physical, mental, spiritual and economical. The associated consequences of granting individual liberty are also well known but are not typically discussed in the same context as the benefits leading to political discussions on liberty tha missing half of the context they need. The main consequence of a society dedicated to individual liberty is the demand on individuals to accept personal responsibility. This is largely responsibility for your own decisions but there is an element that can bequeath responsibility on you due to someone else’s decisions.
What does a circumstance look like where that responsibility is foisted onto your shoulders based on another’s actions? It looks like a freedom in speech. You have personal responsibility to act in a liberty maintaining manner when someone says something you don’t like or even when what they say is factually false. It looks like freedom of religion. People with freedom to believe how they wish have a personal responsibility of behaving in a way that enables that freedom in others. It looks like a right to bear arms. Others’ misuse of this freedom may create a personal responsibility in you to either display restraint or to display prudence in defense of that freedom.
It is essential to keep both consequences at the forefront in any conversation involving liberty. Most conversations that claim to discuss liberty leave out one of the two consequences. For example, someone may claim, under the guise of ‘liberty’, that they are free to act as they please. Their subsequent irresponsibility can create a heavy societal burden that others must bear. Alternatively, someone may focus only on the burden to others that an irresponsible act may bring and seek to reduce that burden by limiting freedom using the force of law. Neither conversation is accurate as both miss the actual nature of freedom. If all individuals acted how they wished in all events, society would tend toward anarchy, not liberty. If the power of law was used to intervene to remove the burden of liberty on others, society would tend toward tyranny, not liberty.
This is where Bastiat’s definition of liberty can be applied. Some may claim the freedom to do as they please under the guise of ‘liberty’ while others my claim a limit on freedom under the guise of ‘protection’. Neither will bring about liberty. Only “an acknowledgement of faith in God” will bring about liberty. We can further simplify this to a ‘belief in God’.
A belief in God answers the concerns of both liberty’s anarchists and tyrannists. A belief in God moderates action and increases personal responsibility. It helps individuals understand and accept a responsibility for their own actions. It provides a sufficient moderation on individual action so that the burden on society of irresponsible behavior is lessened to a manageable degree.
A belief in God also answers the tyrannists who feel the need to impel all good behavior through the rule of law. As mentioned above, a belief in God will encourage individuals to make more responsible decisions and maintain a watchful eye for their neighbors. It also does something more. It allows individuals to deal more responsibly with unfair burdens that may be given to them due to another’s irresponsible actions. A belief in God accounts for hardship that may be caused by others. It enables individuals to look beyond themselves to a good that transcends their current situation and thus increases their endurance in situations that may seem unfair or unjust.
This isn’t to say that everyone in a society that has instilled liberty as its primary virtue must believe in God or else the society will fail. It also isn’t to say that those that believe in God always act in a manner that agrees with that belief. Neither is true. Many find a belief in God difficult, and – looking at God from a Christian perspective - no one ever follows the Christian ideal to perfection. As G. K. Chesterton once put it, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.”2 The key point isn’t that everyone must believe in God and live a perfect, God-fearing life of piety. It’s that the moral virtues in society must be based on the premise of a belief in God. This was the basis for the beginning of the United States of America. “One nation, under God…”
A contemporary of Bastiat named Alexis de Tocqueville helped us understand why this must be the case when he wrote, “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”3 The establishment of a governing body that protects the inalienable right of individual liberty is a moral endeavor. The question of protecting liberty or infringing upon it ultimately reduces to what a society believes “ought to be”, and that question is a question of morals. The morals stance of protecting individual liberty is adequately defined by a faith, or belief, in God.
Both Bastiat and Tocqueville have the same message. Liberty cannot be maintained if the society that attempts to sustain it doesn’t set a belief in God as its central tenant. As John Adams famously said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”4 The Constitution of the United States was created with the express purpose to “…secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”5 As a belief in God dwindles – whether that is in word or deed – the liberty of the individuals in a society will vanish with it.
Who, then, is to blame, and what is there to do? We don’t have to look farther than a mirror to find the ‘who’ and our own actions to find the ‘what’. James Madison said, “[W]hat is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” It falls to each of us to protect individual liberty. Please don’t mistake this for a call to political activism. If we are fighting the battle for individual liberty at the State or Federal Government level, we have already lost the war.
We need to begin the battle in our own homes and neighborhoods. It begins with our own personal responsibility and virtue. “[P]eople lacking in virtue could be counted on to trade liberty for protection, for financial or personal security, for comfort … for having their problems solved quickly. And there will always be people occupying or standing for public office who will be happy to offer the deal.”7 When you see a problem in your home that you did not create, it takes virtue and responsibility for you to stand up and take care of it. The same can be said for your neighborhood. Our natural desire is to say, “That isn’t my problem. Someone else should take care of it.” It takes a virtuous and responsible person to say, “That isn’t my problem, but I’m going to do something about it – even if I have to do the work myself.”
In short, it takes the principles espoused by a belief in God. Our individual liberty will continue to disappear if we do not check the decline of Godliness in all our social institutions – beginning most importantly in our own homes.
At Believe, we are working to change the world, for good. We are a community of people who are willing to work and help another. We would love to have you join us. The world may never be the same.
1Bastiat, Frédéric. (2016). The law. pg 95 2Chesterton. (1910). What’s wrong with the world. 3Tocqueville, Alexis de. (2004). Democracy in America. Bantam Books. pg 13 4“From John Adams to Massachusetts Militia, 11 October 1798,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed Aug. 9, 2022, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-3102. 5See the Constitution of the United States, 1st paragraph. 6James Madison, The Federalist Papers, No. 51 7Robert P. George, Ruling to Serve, First Things, accessed Aug. 9, 2022, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/04/ruling-to-serve.