What is freedom?

It’s a question at the heart of the American experiment. Our national anthem dubs us “the land of the free.” Our Declaration of Independence proclaims that America “ought to be Free and Independent States.” Our Constitution’s stated purpose is to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

In a certain sense, America has been seeking the meaning of freedom since the country’s founding. In asserting our independence from Britain, we declared that all people “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It was an extraordinarily bold statement, but it also left the fundamental concepts of “liberty” and “happiness” open to interpretation. Perhaps that was Thomas Jefferson’s intention in writing those words, to set forth an ideal that America could eternally strive to define and reach for, and in doing so, create the freest and most prosperous country the world has ever known.

What could possibly go wrong?

The Great American Paradox

Jefferson followed up his declaration of man’s unalienable rights with these words: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Consent of the governed was not a completely new idea; the king of England ruled with the consent of Parliament, which represented the people. However, our Founders took this principle of consent even further by establishing a constitutional republic—foregoing a monarch and entrusting lawmaking to representatives elected by the people.

This leads us to the central paradox of the American experiment. By choosing to define civic freedom in this way, America took a great gamble—it bestowed governing power to a majority, trusting that that majority would decide against tyranny. Ever since then, an uneasy and terrifying possibility has lingered in the back of the American consciousness: If a majority of Americans are somehow convinced that freedom should be abolished, they could in theory “freely” choose tyranny.

A modern iteration of this paradox is currently playing itself out in our culture. On one hand, a sizeable portion of Americans believes that freedom is the ability to do whatever one wants whenever one wants, usually with a vaguely defined caveat that one’s free choices should not “harm” somebody else. But on the other hand, another large portion of Americans believes that freedom is innately tied to virtue and responsibility—in other words, an authentically “free” choice must be not only for one’s own good but also for the general welfare of society at large.

At first glance, there may not seem to be much difference between these two views. But there’s a crucial difference: The first view sees personal autonomy as the highest good, whereas the second view sees personal virtue as the highest good. Here again, we come up against a fundamental paradox and an open question. In a country where everyone is free to decide for themselves what the definition of freedom is, how long can that country maintain some semblance of unity before devolving into either fascism or an anarchy of moral relativism?

The True Source of Freedom

As Christians, we know that true freedom can only come when we freely choose to live in accordance with God’s law. The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church concisely states this truth well:

By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.

The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin.” [Romans 6:17]

In America, we see a culture that is awash in the abuse of freedom. In the name of “freedom of choice,” the lives of unborn babies are extinguished in their mothers’ wombs, often due to pressure from fathers and family members. In the name of “freedom of expression,” pornography clogs the internet and sweeps up millions of Americans into the slavery of addiction. In the name of “freely choosing one’s identity,” children are indoctrinated, speech is restricted, and people are canceled. The list goes on and on.

One of the greatest tragedies of the Christian life is to witness others make wrong and poor choices about freedom that lead to enslavement to sin and, ultimately, spiritual death. But herein lies the golden opportunity for American believers. As faithful Christians, we have discovered the only true source for happiness, contentment, and true freedom: faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to His laws. Thus, by “always be[ing] prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15), we can help spread a true understanding of freedom to our family members, friends, coworkers, and anyone else in our circles of influence, always remembering to “do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15).

“A Moral and Religious People”

By God’s grace, America has remained a flawed but free country for 238 years, arguably the longest-standing democracy in the world. But, as former President Ronald Reagan famously said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” Indeed, we are seeing authoritarianism creep its way into American life as we speak.

This is why for Christian citizens, American freedom will always be bittersweet. We treasure our freedom to believe and live out our faith in our daily lives, but we also know that it could vanish if enough of our fellow citizens make terrible choices. Consequently, believers ought to not only share their faith with boldness and work to educate their friends and neighbors on the values of civic freedom, but we should also bear witness to what will truly set the human heart free: to do what one ought to in accordance with God’s law. As our second President John Adams wisely observed, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Despite the precarious nature of American freedom, there is a silver lining in it. The very fact that our country remains free only by the choice of its citizens is a stark reminder for Christians that our true home is not here. As brilliant as our Founding Fathers were in establishing our constitutional republic, it is impossible for fallen human beings to create a system of government that will deliver a utopian paradise (despite what some believe). The paradox of American freedom reminds believers that there is only one truly free place—the heavenly kingdom ruled by our Creator. And while we are called to be good citizens of both the City of God and City of Man (Phil. 3:20), we are nevertheless “sojourners and exiles” in this world (2 Peter 2:11).

To be a Christian citizen of America is to be a person of trust. We harness the opportunities that American freedom gives us by witnessing to the gospel and leave the rest up to God. What could be more freeing than that?