Freedom! Today is Independence Day. On this date in 1776, the leaders of the colonies issued the Declaration of Independence. The most familiar phrase from the Declaration states: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalieanable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” But what does that mean? And what does it mean for us today?
The language of the Declaration of Independence is lofty. However, we have not always succeeded in living up to that ambition. For many years, the equality for “all men” was limited to white male landowners. These “unalienable rights” expanded slowly, to be sure, and even today they are not equally enjoyed.
But our failure to establish those rights in practice does not mean that the ambition was wrong. The drafters and signers of the Declaration believed our Creator gave us those rights. People may disagree about that, and about who the Creator is. However, the heart of that statement is that people have rights which accrue to them simply because they exist. That is what the Declaration means by endowed by their Creator; that those rights are unalienable means that it is not right for any government to try to take them away.
The Government and Freedom
In fact, as you read on, the Declaration states you find that people form governments to secure these rights. Even more surprising is the statement: “Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [securing the rights of its people], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” In other words, if the government is not performing its basic obligation of protecting the rights of its people, the people have the right to change it – or even abolish it.
That brings me to our current situation. Last week, the Supreme Court issued rulings in some cases dealing with discrimination and individual rights. Not surprisingly, many people celebrated those rulings; also not surprisingly, others decried them as outrageous and contrary to our governing principles. Those reactions were not surprising. Our society is very polarized. Anything that happens brings strong and opposing reactions from those at the extremes. Also when we talk about “rights” and “freedom,” strong opinions and reactions are inevitable.
“Freedom From” or “Freedom To”?
But what kind of freedom do we have? Or, more precisely, what kind of freedom do we think we have? There are two ways that people look at freedom. Some people think of freedom as “freedom to.” In other words, the purpose of the freedom is to enable them to do what they want to do. The other view is that freedom is basically “freedom from” interference. In other words, I can go about my affairs without interference or opposition from the government. Here’s an example: “freedom from” means that I can light fireworks off to celebrate Independence Day. “Freedom to” means that someone gives me the fireworks to light (perhaps with assurances that the fireworks would be beautiful and would not blow off any of my body parts).
Your view of freedom largely shapes your view of the political and social state of our nation today. If you believe that freedom is “freedom to,” you believe the government has the power and the obligation to actively help you to achieve what you want. On the other hand, if you think that freedom is “freedom from,” you expect the government to largely leave you alone and not interfere in your lawful activities.
Freedom and the Supreme Court
So how does that play out in regard to the recent Supreme Court decisions? In the Harvard and North Carolina case, the Court rejected the use of racial preferences in higher education. The “freedom to” camp expects the government to take an active role in “helping” people who may have certain disadvantages because of race (or gender, or other “protected categories”) to attend certain universities (or get jobs in certain fields, etc.). This group sees the Court’s decision as a “step back” from its obligations. They believe the government ought to actively work to give people “freedom to.”
The ”freedom from” group, on the other hand, applauds this decision. The actual ruling seems to be that the Fourteenth Amendment means what it says when it says “no discrimination based on race.” The same principle holds true in the Colorado case. The Court ruled that the government cannot compel a web designer to design websites for same-sex couples against her religious beliefs. “Freedom from” means that the government cannot compel you to do something against your will.
Protected Activities and Compelling Interests
I don’t want to get too deep into the legal “weeds” of this discussion. Prior to becoming a pastor, I was an attorney, but my practice has not focused on constitutional issues. Generally, governmental restrictions on “protected activities” (one of which is religious belief) must be supported by a “compelling interest.” They must also be drawn as narrowly as possible in order to avoid unduly infringing on people’s rights.
The Court thus struck down the Colorado law in question because it impacted the web designer’s religious beliefs. The state sought to compel her to create a website to “celebrate” something that violates her faith. Now, people will argue on both sides of this issue. Some will claim that the ruling opens the door for people to use “religious belief” to engage in all kinds of discriminatory behavior. Others will respond that this was more a matter of persecution of religious belief than protecting the rights of same-sex couples. Again, that’s a mark of our polarized culture.
What Kind of Freedom Do We Have?
Back to the original question: What kind of freedom do we have? To answer that, I go back again to the Declaration of Independence, to the first quote which I included. Specifically, I want to look at the statement that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Our Creator has given us the right to life. While there are times when the state may take life from people, those times should always be very limited and very rare.
We have the right to “Liberty.” “Liberty” is another word for “freedom.” This right to “liberty” reinforces the belief that freedom is primarily “freedom from.” The colonists were upset that the British king could create new laws and obligations, restricting their freedom, taking their money through taxes, and even imposing British troops into their homes – all without their say. The king was depriving them of their liberties without their consent. That’s why they proclaimed the right to “Liberty” to be “unalienable.”
The Pursuit of Happiness
But the last phrase is different. The drafters and signers of the Declaration did not say, “Life, Liberty, and Happiness.” Instead, they stated, “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The government does not, and cannot, guarantee our happiness. We do not have a “right to happiness.” We have a right to pursue happiness, and the government should not unreasonably restrict that right.
Unfortunately, our right to “pursue happiness” often puts us at odds with each other. My pursuit of happiness may directly impact your pursuit of happiness. In this fallen world, people primarily “look out for number one.” The pursuit of happiness will constantly result in conflicts. If we both want the same thing, and there’s only one of them, one of us is going to be unhappy! Here’s the key: there is no law and no government that can fix that!
I believe that those who wrote and signed the Declaration understood that. That’s why they talked about the “pursuit” of happiness. Government shouldn’t be picking “winners and losers” in the pursuit of happiness. The government’s role is to try to make sure that everybody has the right to pursue happiness. People will always disagree about how the government does that, and how far it should go. But the best that government can do is try to make sure that everyone enjoys those same “unalienable rights.” When government goes beyond that, it necessarily infringes on one person’s freedom in order to favor someone else.
Real Freedom: Freedom to Be What God Created Us to Be
One final note: because I’m a Christian pastor, I always think about these issues from a Christian perspective. In this case, that perspective is NOT primarily related to protecting religious freedom (although I am always in favor of that, for all religions). No, in this case, my perspective relates to “freedom from” and “freedom to.” The greatness of the gospel – the “good news” – is that God does something that no government can: God actually gives us “freedom to.” He gives us the freedom to live above sin and to live the way he created us to live. Freedom in Christ is not primarily freedom to “do whatever we want.” Instead, it is freedom to do what we were created to do – to live in relationship with God. Instead of letting us do what we want, Christ transforms us so that we don’t want the same things anymore!
When we realize that Christ has set us free from the chains of sin, and has empowered us to live above sin, we experience what real freedom is – freedom to be what God created us to be!