Thursday, July 10, 2008

Freedom and Christianity

Thank you to Lindsey, Jonathan, and the rest of the American Creation folks for inviting me to take part in this blog discussion. I'm unsure how longterm or frequent my participation can be, but I welcome the opportunity to contribute in whatever way I'm capable.

To get me started, I'd like to respond to comments Jonathan posted in reply to a column I wrote recently for the Acton Institute, "Christianity and the History of Freedom." (Scroll down to view Jonathan's comments.)

Jon wrote:
"Christ came to set captives free, the scriptures say."
Arguably your contextual use of this scripture distorts its meaning pretty significantly. This has nothing to do with political liberty or abolishing chattel slavery; rather it means freedom from sin or sin's consequences (however you want to put it). One can be both a chattel slave and "free" in Christ at the same time.
I agree with the gist of this objection, as well as with the content of the citation from Robert Kraynak that follows it. My excuse is that of the op-ed writer: I couldn't say everything in 700 words and so had to limit my discussion of this point to an admittedly inadequate mention of "internal" freedom.

With that said, I don't agree that Christ's liberation from sin and death has "nothing to do" with other connotations of liberty, such as slavery and political freedom. Christ's life and teaching had many ramifications, including the gradual working out of freedom in political, economic, and social spheres. If not, then it is hard to explain, for example, the teachings of recent popes that slavery and political oppression violate the gospel message. One would have to argue that these teachings are illegitimate developments of the Christian moral tradition, lifted instead from some other secular or religious source. Some so argue, but I don't buy it.

A complementary way of understanding the issue is provided by a Reformed colleague, Jordan Ballor:
To put it overly simply, the Reformed tradition in particular points to texts precisely like the one you cite, and others (e.g. "if the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed," John 8:36), in the immediate context of questions on free choice (liberum arbitrium), and define it in such a way that by what we might call "conversion" or "regeneration" the faculty of the will is renewed so that it becomes able not to sin, or to do "Christian" good. A clear external result of what might be called a purely "inner" freedom is that the external yoke of the civil law need not necessarily be so strict or punitive as it would otherwise with a populace made up wholly of the unregenerate...clearing the way for a political ethic that takes into account a religiously and morally formed populace that can be freed from certain aspects of external constraint.
Jon wrote:
I'm one of those people who argues that the Constitution and Declaration are not for the most part based on "Christian principles" and it is indeed the case that not all of the Founders were Christians and the God they invoked arguably was not the Biblical God. As you can see, I'm pretty skeptical of the "Christian America" claim and have done a pretty thorough job (after, of course, more distinguished scholars) debunking Protestant fundamentalists who make this claim and am interested in engaging Catholic scholars as well.
The term "Christian America" is indeed problematic, though it can be accurate if understood in a certain way. I will no doubt have the chance to expand on my views of this point in the future, so I'll leave it at that for now.

Unquestionably the founders were a diverse group, some of whose views were certainly heterodox with respect to traditional Christian doctrine. The key point to make about the Founding is that all such events, spanning years and encompassing millions of people, can legitimately mean various things to various people. Anti-Catholicism was a powerful impetus to the Revolution for many patriots, but I doubt that it is what motivated Charles Carroll.

Jon wrote:
I attended the premiere of the Acton Institute's "A Birth of Freedom" in DC and was one of the first question askers (I noted how the American and French Revolutions were thought of at the time as parallel ideological events).
It is true that some observers in America and elsewhere, such as Thomas Jefferson, viewed the two revolutions as "parallel ideological events." But other perceptive observers, such as Edmund Burke, did not. The interpretation of both revolutions was contentious at the time and has remained so ever since.

Again, thank you for the opportunity; I look forward to continuing the conversation.


Phil Johnson said...

It seems to me as though the writer is chomping around the differences between freedom and liberty.

Kevin Schmiesing said...

I'm familiar with various efforts to distinguish liberty and freedom, but have never found them convincing. One has a Latin etymology, the other German. To me, their synonymous. Yet it is true that people attach significantly different meanings to both words. A more helpful distinction, in my view, is postive versus negative freedom (or liberty), which corresponds to internal versus external freedom (or liberty). This is the distinction between external constraints and bondage to sin (or passions, to use classical rather than Christian language).

Brad Hart said...

Welcome to the blog, Kevin. Very interesting post. I look forward to your future installments!

Jonathan Rowe said...

I agree with Kevin that "Freedom" and "Liberty" are synonymous and I interchange them as such.

Phil Johnson said...

Persons can be given freedom to do something or other.
But, persons take liberty to do that for which they have not been given freedom.

Joshua said...

Forgive me if this has been mentioned/dealt with heavily in the past (I'm a casual subscriber/reader and probably didn't pick through this series enough), but this comment interested me:

"One would have to argue that these teachings are illegitimate developments of the Christian moral tradition, lifted instead from some other secular or religious source. Some so argue, but I don't buy it."

While I agree with Kevin, I think we need to consider that American Christianity itself may have been the reason for "freedom in Christ" to be possible in spite of (what was to them) the "traditional" Calvinist concept of sin/predestination. While this is less applicable to pre-Second Great Awakening politicians and theologians, much had changed as a result of disestablishment. In my senior thesis, I dealt with the "sacralization" of certain concepts - e.g. abolitionism and temperance. Where both began as marginal political movements, they soon became integrated in the lifeblood of American theology (at least in the North).

Likewise, I would argue that this concept of "liberty" in Christ is present in Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" when she notes "As He died to make men holy, let us live/die to make men free." In addition, it is prevalent in much of the "Americanized" Calvinist theology following the Second Great Awakening which melted into the antislavery movement.

My main concern is that while it might be important to discuss what biblical authors really meant, is it really important compared to the cultural/political/social contexts in which Americans reinterpreted their religion? I would agree that our "Founders" were more likely to lean more toward Enlightenment thought and discourse to consider the new Republic, but can the same really be said for America's clergy after 1815?

Unknown said...

hi,i read this post.i says that Americans so completely identify the spirit of Christianity with freedom in their minds that it is almost impossible to get them to conceive the one without ...

Andrew said...

Thank God we are Free!