The Slavery of “Freedom”

We Americans love to talk about freedom.

We call ourselves “the land of the free”; our Declaration of Independence talks about liberty as an “inalienable right”; there are still few things that can get an American riled up like the threat of a loss of freedom.

But our freedom is in jeopardy, says Os Guinness in his new book, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future (there is a very good three part interview with Guinness by Timothy Dalrymple). Guinness doesn’t find the primary threat to our freedom in an external source, like another nation, or even “big government” or “big business” or special interests. No, the enemy is us. Freedom cannot be won for all time and then left alone; it needs to be sustained. And, Guinness writes, Americans are failing to sustain the freedom our nation’s founders worked so hard to win: “The problem is not wolves at the door but termites in the floor. Powerful free people die only by their own hand, and free people have no one to blame but themselves” (37). The vision of freedom we Americans are pursuing is “short-lived and suicidal” (29).

(Side note: The title A Free People’s Suicide might seem bombastic, but it comes from a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”)

The problem with our vision of freedom is that the freedom we love to talk about and claim for ourselves focuses exclusively on freedom from external constraints. There are two kinds of freedom: freedom from constraint (negative freedom) and freedom for cultivating virtue and becoming the people we ought to be (positive freedom). Modern Americans are only interested in negative freedom. We claim rights and entitlements for ourselves, but do not care about duty, virtue, character, or pursuing excellence. Negative freedom alone is unsustainable. Freedom from external restraint, without self-restraint, undermines itself.

What can be done? Guinness argues that we need to return to the founders’ vision of freedom, which he calls the “Golden Triangle of Freedom.” He demonstrates that the founders did not have a vision of freedom that stopped with freedom from constraint. Rather, their vision of freedom was part of an interdependent triangle: freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; faith requires freedom.

Perhaps the most controversial part of this triangle of freedom in our time is faith (Eric Metaxas wrote a good review of this book in the Christian Post focusing on this point). The point for Guinness, and I agree, is not necessarily that the founders were Christians (though some were). Rather, the point is that the founders (even the Deists) were unanimous in their approval of faith of any kind, because faith fosters virtue, and only a virtuous people can remain free.

Guinness’ book is intended not just for Christians or religious people, but for all Americans who care about freedom. For that reason, I understand his arguing for faith as part of the golden triangle of freedom on pragmatic grounds (he follows the founders in adopting this tactic). Nevertheless, I think his argument ought to have particular force for Christians. The Bible also understands freedom as not merely freedom from constraint.

Seven times in the book of Exodus, God (through Moses) says, “Let my people go so that they may serve me.” (Exod 5:1; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3). Jesus said, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36), but he also said, “Take my yoke upon you” (Matt 11:29). One of the earliest Christians’ favorite self-designations was “slave of Christ” (Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 7:22; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1; Titus 1:1; Jas 1:1; 2 Pet 1:1; Jude 1; Rev 1:1). Freedom, for the Christian, can never be merely about freedom from external constraints. It begins with freedom from constraint, but doesn’t stop there. Christian freedom is not just freedom from, but freedom for: freedom to serve God and others. From a Christian perspective, those who begin by thinking freedom is merely the absence of external constraints end by becoming slaves to their own appetites: greed, lust, and desire for power.

I applaud Guinness’ effort to prod Americans to do the hard work of sustaining freedom. I hope his argument gains a wide hearing. In particular, I hope his argument gains traction among Christians, who are just as prone to only care about negative freedom as anyone else, but who have the least reason for doing so.

Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy.