“From the Pulpit” Column,

Liberty and Democracy

July 20. 2007 Martinsville Bulletin “For freedom’s sake Christ has set you free.” Galatians 5:1

A few years ago I studied Alex  de Tocqueville Democracy in America and became convinced of what other had told me. It is the most insightful book written on America. The great Frenchman set out 150 years ago to find why this democracy was so different from less successful ones.

We Americans are usually content to lump together everything we like about our homeland:democracy, liberty, private ownership, free enterprise, and the rest. It is like saying, “I like this pound cake,” without definite notions of how much sugar, and how much flour and how much flavoring makes it so good. But, in fact, which ingredients and in what proportion is everything, as a bad cake will teach you.

According to Tocqueville, democracy is a blessing in America because of other ingredients. Voluntary organizations, churches and schools foster civic virtues. Without good, responsible people, America could not be so great, he concludes. Abundant resources and sparsely settled territories have enable citizens to be independent and self- reliant. Circumstances have required them to be inventive and cooperate.

If you take away these experiences, you might have a very different country. What would happen if the people who make up the majority become more eager for ease then work, entertainment than learning, security than freedom? If the majority is not composed of wise people, don’t expect much of their combined wisdom. If it is not composed of people who value the good of all, don’t expect much statesmanship from their elected leaders.

Aristotle had a low opinion of democracy. To him it tends toward the most vicious and self-perpetuating regime where the majority rules by whim and for its own advantage, disregarding the rights of those citizens in the minority.

Our founding fathers studied such great thinkers and created a system of checks and balance, terraces preventing a flash flood of popular sentiment from destroying the farm.

A democracy will likely become more democratic, and Tocqueville saw democracy as the wave of the future. It takes attention to virtue (which Tocqueville said was beyond the control of government) to prevent democracy from becoming a curse. The Declaration of Independence asserts that all humans are “created equal,” which is the theme of democracy; but is also speaks of “inalienable rights” en downed by their Creator” to individuals, which is a theme of liberty. The combination of equality and liberty makes us a liberal democracy.

According to Fareed Zakaria (2007) , editor of Foreign Affairs, more and more nations are becoming democratic, as Tocqueville  predicted, but more than half of the democracies in the world today are repressive. Popularly elected administrations have shut down dissension, eliminated freedom of speech, of religion, or of assembly– all with popular approval.   What we should push for in the world is not so much simple democracy, but liberal democracy where that is possible.

Paul in his letter to the Galatians is, of course, not thinking so much about political liberty. In Galatians 5:1 he is speaking of freedom from the law. Christians are not bound by cultural technicalities, rituals of identity, and literal legal prescriptions, litmus tests some preached as necessary to be assured one is saved. People who do not know how to bake bread may need elaborate instructions, but when you have learned it from a master you understand the technique without being so nervous about your next move. The law is like training wheels. You can take them off when you have learned to ride the bike. It isn’t that you will want to wreck to prove you are not limited by the training wheels. That would probably prove you were not ready to be without them. It isn’t that under grace we are free to break the law; it is more that you can achieve what the laws are after without focusing on them. Paul wrote, “Neither circumcision nor non-circumcision matters. It is the new creation.” That can be taken to means neither being an observant Jew nor not being Jewish at all is the bottom line. What matters is that you are living the new life, which the law was out to produce to start with. The law by itself cannot produce love, joy, peace, patience , fidelity, humility, and the rest. It take s connection with the divine source to turn the blueprint into the building. “Christ has set you free so you can  be free.”  Don’t put the training wheels back on.

For Paul, liberty was a matter of becoming a grown-up. When we are children, we have to be told how to do most everything. But when maturity comes, we accept responsibility to do what we now know for ourselves needs to be done. We get what the rules are for. We don’t have to rely on someone else to explain them first.

How does that relate to religious liberty in America? In America, religion has flourished independently of government trying to legislate about it. Denied support from tax dollars, our religious institutions have vitality. Without depending on government perks for ourselves or penalties for those who differ from us, we ask only to be allowed to witness, and we protect the right of others to witness to their faith, or lack of it. Such liberty is indeed and achievement and a blessing. It is not that we dot believe in law and order, but that those are not the means to “the new life.”

Of course, a faith is not make true simply by  personal endorsement, but nothing short of free personal commitments makes it genuine. Faith is most clearly personal and most powerful where government remains neutral about religion.

Thank God we can without fear declare our faith, and God help us to protect that freedom for others. “Christ made us free so we can be free.” Work that idea out and you come to hold the very best thing politically for religion is not a religious state  but a state that respects humans rights in general and religious liberty in particular.


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