Thoughts on the Tyranny of Freedom

This was originally two postings, on 20 and 21 January 2005 – updated on 26 March 2010

George Bush gave his second inauguration speech earlier this week. Sky News tells me, he used the word “freedom” 27 times – not including references to “liberty”. This was certainly the clear theme of his speech. As a Christian, knowing that Bush is one of the most prominent voices of modern Christians, I listened with a sense of unease. I wonder of he means what I mean when he thinks of freedom?

Not only am I uneasy in general with the current US Administration (and with the millions who support it, seemingly blind to its alienation from the rest of the planet), I am specifically concerned about the fact that this Administration, embodied in Bush, has subtly redefined issues and is deluding millions of people.

I need to spend more time reflecting on my disquiet. George Bush’s speech was certainly inspiring – and he pulled it off – better than could be expected. He is known to butcher the English language – he did not do that this week. But he lacked real passion and conviction. It was obvious that he was reading someone else’s words. It was obvious that he was aiming for media-friendly sound-bites, rather than flowing, passionate speech. During the past week, he has specifically stated that he wanted to deliver a speech that would be remembered by history (maybe even carved in stone in the Capitol like other inaugural addresses have been in the past). It was not one of those. But, in general, it was a good speech – if you’re American, anyway.

But, it leaves me thinking one specific thought tonight. Is “freedom” and “liberty” a good goal for a Christian to pursue? I am not so sure. The Bible seems to talk a lot about service, slavery even, and responsibilities, obligations and duties. Not so much about rights, privileges and freedoms. Where the Bible does talk about freedom, it is most often a freedom TO DO something.

It seems to me that God is much more concerned about justice, equality and character, than freedom. Granted, Bush did talk about these things, too, but largely as afterthoughts – and certainly his policies indicate that they are afterthoughts.

I believe that freedom is not a goal. It is a means. It is not the end, it is simply a necessary method towards an end. And “bringing liberty to all peoples on earth” is therefore not a noble enough goal. What will that liberty enable them to do? To be? To have? Bush referred over and over again to material issues, to “quality of life” (measured economically), to “the wallet”, etc.

This is the danger of American Christianity, as it has subtly, without knowing it, slipped into materialism. Worse still, it has done so with the belief that by doing so it is achieving the highest goal of God for His creation.

If George Bush’s speech was a sermon (and it was) in a seminary preaching class, then on style, we would rate it highly. On content, we would have to give a failing grade, and we would be worried and perturbed by the serious flaws in his theology.

He is not a preacher, but Bush does have a huge impact and following amongst (especially evangelical) Christians in America. That is cause for concern.

As a South African, I have lived through 10 years of democratic freedom – its a tough transitional period that will probably last another decade at least. And in order for that freedom to exist and for its benefits to be brought to all, those who have had more freedom have to give up some of it so that those who have not had it can get some. Freedom is not a limitless entity.

For example, every company in South Africa must comply with requirements for racial and gender quotas (as well as have plans in place for other diversity elements, such as people with disabilities). This is a requirement in order to survive, and curtials our freedom to employ who we want, when we want.

If the ultimate goal of George Bush’s vision for American imperialism in the world is ultimate freedom taken to every corner of the globe, I think he will be disappointed.

Let’s forget about the challenges he will face in countries like Zimbabwe, North Korea, Iran, Somalia, Cuba, and others. Let’s forget about the ethics of imposition of foreign will on a sovereign state. Let’s just focus in on what freedom means.

Freedom is ultimately a very liberal thing. It means (in Bush’s sweeping definitions), the ability of people to make their own choices, without fear that they will be forced to do something against their own will. It is about living without fear. It is about liberty.

But freedom cannot guarantee security. In fact, in some senses, security is the antithesis of freedom. To be secure means to have some freedoms curtailed, so that in other aspects you can exercise your (now limited) freedom. In the USA, the Patriot Act is wholly anti-freedom. Americans have realised, like most others in the world already know, that to have security one must give up (some) freedoms.

Freedom does not guarantee equality, nor does freedom’s ring immediately and automatically redress the wrongs of the past. That’s why, in South Africa, we have had to force quotas into the business world (and the arts, and sport, etc), in order to redress the balance. This is different (subtly) from affirmative action, since it is not just about window dressing, it is about redress and systemic change.

Freedom must be protected, and provided to all. The removal of freedom can only be a last resort, and only after extensive, and free, process. So, what about the “enemy combatants” now held in limbo in Guantanamo? Where is freedom now? If freedom’s ideals are stripped from even one person, then they are stripped from all, and become worthless.

If freedom is an ideal, then we have to live with the consequences of freedom. By nature, freedom is liberal, not conservative. If we grant freedom for people to choose, we cannot remove their freedom when they use it to make choices we would not have made. If we grant people freedom, we cannot legislate against abortion, nor against gay marriage, or a whole host of other issues on which people deserve to be “free”. As soon as one group imposes its will on another, freedom has left the building.

If we can’t handle this, then we can’t handle true freedom. Which is possibly my point. I don’t think, as Christians, that we can buy into the current “American dream” of freedom for all people everywhere. I just don’t think it is Biblical.

God, of course, gave us freedom. Freedom to choose whichever path we wanted. That freedom is the direct reason that sin entered the world. Not a great strarting point (“fruit of a poisonous tree” type stuff, this freedom gig…). We need to be careful not to be sucked in by George Bush’s current American vision. Yes, sure, buy into as an American ideal. Even as a civilised ideal (whatever that may mean). But not as a Christian ideal.

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