4th of July Reflection: Freedom’s Fragile Reality

COMMENTARY: If we want the U.S. to grow and prosper and continue to be ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave,’ then a mature freedom and a sound moral sense must be fully retrieved and put into public practice.

A U.S. flag is displayed outside of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Baltimore.
A U.S. flag is displayed outside of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Baltimore. (photo: Kevin Jones / CNA)

Independence Day is an opportunity for every citizen, and especially Christian citizens, to pause and remind ourselves of some of the critical lessons at the heart of virtuous living and representative government.

Growing up as the son of an American soldier, I spent a lot of my childhood in what was then West Germany. We were in Germany as a part of the Allied commitment to protect democracy in Western Europe. It was the 1980s, and things fluctuated from intense to severe.

From the many experiences that came from living in Cold War Germany, there were certain lessons that were regularly affirmed and became very clear in my young mind: Namely, freedom isn’t free, and good things are worth fighting for. The basis of these lessons came from a holistic view of the human person, which included an understanding of our dignity and an awareness and appreciation of our call to transcendence.

Freedom is a fragile reality.

It’s flat-out denounced by the fictional character of the Grand Inquisitor in the Russian novel The Brothers Karamazov. In the disturbing account of the Inquisitor, Jesus Christ returns to the earth, works miracles and gives hope to people. But he is quickly arrested and scrutinized by the Inquisitor; the examiner tells Christ that he is no longer needed. He mocks the freedom that Christ has given to humanity and tells the Savior that he has misjudged human nature.

The Inquisitor argues that people don’t want to be free and cannot be trusted with freedom. He declares that people simply want (and need) overlords and rulers. He argues that humanity should not be given freedom. In his view, it’s too dangerous, too unreliable and too uncertain. The Inquisitor believes that freedom must be restricted. People should be controlled by fear and led by harsh rulers. In such a way, the Inquisitor shows that he understands the turbulence of freedom but has forgotten the workings of grace and humanity’s capacity for moral and spiritual greatness.

Unlike the fear of the Grand Inquisitor, the Christian faith and the American experiment assert that freedom is our inheritance as the children of God — and it’s worth the risk.

Of course, such an assertion requires that freedom be rightly and fully understood. Freedom is a summons placed within the heart of every human person to live a life of nobility, self-control and goodness. Freedom is not the power to do whatever we want. It is the power to do what is right and good. Freedom always runs the risk of captivity, however, either by our own fallen hearts through sin, or by structures of governance that repress authentic liberty, self-determination, and a creativity born from virtuous living.

St. Paul describes the struggle for freedom in our hearts:

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. … For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:1,13-14).

The battle for goodness is nonstop in our own hearts — and in the fallen world. We have not only our hearts to contend with, but a world that consistently desires to choose what is less good, less noble, less excellent and less holy. In such a state of affairs, we are called to cooperate with God’s grace, understand our dignity, and fight for the freedom to pursue and thrive in what is true, good and beautiful in our world today. The fight is only optional if we’ve decided to compromise and accept waywardness and tyranny as the rule of the day.

St. Paul also describes this battle in the midst of the world:

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (Romans 12:9-12).

These lessons are not only those of a young teenager living in Mainz, West Germany, almost four decades ago. They are the lessons that all people of goodwill are called to discern, discover and accept. They are the foundational lessons that inspire, motivate and sustain a healthy society and a virtuous form of representative government.

These lessons were referenced in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan as he praised the human spirit and juxtaposed such holistic lessons with the backwardness of a totalitarian form of government in his famous “Tear Down This Wall” speech:

“Perhaps this gets to the root of the matter, to the most fundamental distinction of all between East and West. The totalitarian world produces backwardness because it does such violence to the spirit, thwarting the human impulse to create, to enjoy, to worship. The totalitarian world finds even symbols of love and of worship an affront.”

We were all reminded of these important lessons on June 6, as we saw the solemn observances of the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy. The extreme loss of life, the countless acts of heroism, and the overall victory in the battle against national socialism show us the fortitude and tenacity that are required or freedom and goodness to triumph.

Unlike the “Greatest Generation,” our contemporary culture — which indulges in relativism on one side and new forms of socialism on the other — often misses the interior dynamics of how freedom and goodness interact in such a way that the one needs the other and vice versa. Freedom and moral goodness are beloved twins who enjoy and prosper best when they are together and in harmony with one another.

Pope St. John Paul II taught about this complementarity between freedom and moral goodness. In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, the beloved Pontiff writes:

“Man’s genuine moral autonomy in no way means the rejection but rather the acceptance of the moral law, of God’s command: ‘The Lord God gave this command to the man ...’ (Genesis 2:16). Human freedom and God’s law meet and are called to intersect, in the sense of man’s free obedience to God and of God’s completely gratuitous benevolence towards man” (41).

The question of freedom and moral goodness are intertwined. We can discern this interconnection as human beings, made in God’s image and blessed with the gift of reason.

As Christians, we can also see the connection of freedom and moral goodness in the life of the Lord Jesus. He lived with perfect freedom and moral perfection. One did not diminish the other. Both freedom and moral goodness point to his divinity, majesty and all-holiness.

If we want to avoid the tragedies of the past, and if we want our nation to grow and prosper and continue to be “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” then a mature freedom and a sound moral sense must be fully retrieved and placed in the public forum as a guide and help to our society and its culture. Only with a robust return to a holistic view of the human person can our society truly flourish and be a shining city on a hill.