“Man needs to know that he is born to freedom, hence to tragedy, but also to opportunity. He could be harmless enough, were he less free. Freedom is our opportunity and our tragic destiny. To face this tragedy courageously we need an adequate vision of the opportunity, as well as the danger.” — Charles Hartshorne, Beyond Humanism, 1937
America’s presidential election season is the occasion for a great deal of rhetoric about freedom.
But what is it?
Charles Hartshorne was a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. He had been a student of Alfred North Whitehead, the mathematician and philosopher who inspired “process” philosophy and theology, an attempt to bridge quantum mechanics with metaphysics. For Whitehead and Hartshorne, the indeterminacy of subatomic events suggests that freedom, and the creativity that flows from it, are ubiquitous in the universe. Even electrons make choices. According to process thought, we’re so free that even God can’t know the future, since all entities have the God-given ability to behave unpredictably.
According to America’s Declaration of Independence, liberty is self-evidently endowed to us by our Creator. It’s not granted to us by anybody else. We already have it, whether or not others want us to have it. Freedom is essential to the structure of nature, and thus of our own nature as human beings. We have a lot of it. But do we use it?
The greatest threat to freedom in America is our failure to exercise adequately our choice-making power. Are we acting like free people when at least half of us fail to cast ballots in elections? Do we value freedom, really, when so few of us take full advantage of our lively, unfettered press to get substantially informed on the great issues of the day?
There’s a lot of talk lately about religious freedom being threatened by Obamacare’s requirement that schools and hospitals controlled by religious groups offer contraception coverage in their employee health plans. But the Affordable Health Care Act doesn’t force anyone to use birth control or to change their religious practices. It’s the least of the problems facing the practice of religion in our country. Fewer and fewer Americans are exercising their freedom of religion at all, except by staying away from religion altogether – partly because they’re disgusted by the efforts of some religious groups to deny the freedom of homosexuals to marry each other and end the freedom of women to choose whether or not to have abortions.
There’s much rhetoric today about big government threatening our freedoms. But just when is a government too big? Somalia has hardly any government at all, but do its citizens enjoy their freedom as they dodge random bullets and forage for food to survive? If it takes a big government to enable people to maximize their God-given choice-making potential, then so be it. There is no magic number beyond which government necessarily poses a threat to freedom. What matters is the quality and not so much the quantity of the public sector – whether or not a government is freely chosen, and whether or not it protects and encourages the freedom of its people. To be sure, the world has seen the terrible consequences of governments that have suffocated markets and private civic institutions. But neither Republicans nor Democrats advocate for anything close to this kind of overreach.
The threat to freedom in America is apathy about government, not government itself. We’re free, all of us, each of us, through and through, including our corpuscles and protons. Let’s act like it, and turn out the vote on November 6 like never before!
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California