Throughout the United States, Americans are celebrating Independence Day. Even in a pluralistic society, with different worldviews and values, nothing unites the American people more than an appeal to freedom.
And yet, sometimes the obvious things can be overlooked. For example, it might be beneficial for us to ask: What is freedom? Why is it so essential to a civil society and to the great American experiment?
The moral law, which is given by God and which resonates in the hearts of all people of goodwill, teaches humanity, true freedom. Freedom is often poorly defined as an ability to do whatever we want, but freedom is actually the ability to do what is right. Due to our fallenness, whenever we are left to own devices, we choose darker things and deprive ourselves of authentic freedom.
Freedom is an openness to God, which allows him to work within our interior lives. It is a maturity of the soul that empowers us to act above our passions and desires. Freedom shows us the proper order of things and summons us to do what is right. As human persons, we have to grow into our freedom and safeguard it, so that it does not become enslaved itself.
St. Paul summarizes these truths when he writes: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
And again, the Apostle writes: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
In this way, freedom itself highlights the proper relationship between the moral law and itself. Oftentimes, the moral law and freedom are falsely portrayed as being in contradiction, as if the two are in tension with one “versus” the other. The reality, however, is that there is no “versus” between the moral law and freedom, but rather a rapport of “via,” meaning “by way of,” which demonstrates that the law is in service to freedom and freedom benefits from the discipline of the law.
The moral law helps us to be free. The person, therefore, who repeatedly breaks the moral law lives a life according to his passions and desires. The person’s freedom is enslaved. He is not free. For the person to mature fully, he needs both the law and freedom, and together they pave the way for a virtuous life.
Virtue is best understood as a good habit which governs human action, orders the passions within our hearts, and guides us into conduct according to faith and reason. Freedom is the power to make the right choice, at the right time, in the right situation.
As the moral law secures freedom, so the law and freedom become the means for grace to ennoble the person to exercise virtue. Examples of virtues include, faith, hope and love, as well as prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Other virtues include patience, compassion, gentleness, self-control, and generosity.
For Christian believers, virtue is the Lord’s daily call that tells us what to do in his life. There is nothing more tangible and practical in this world than holiness. Virtue is more real than the physical objects of the world, and it shows the world holiness. It helps the human family to see, hear, taste, smell, and touch God’s presence among us.
The person of goodwill, who perhaps has no religious faith, can aspire to freedom and the process of exercising natural virtue in his own interior life. The natural virtues, upon which the Christian virtues flourish, are available and rightly expected of every civil person by their spouse, family, society, culture, and professional association.
As the United States champions freedom, it is a noble action to pause and reflect upon what freedom is. It’s worth the time and mental energy to discern a definition and shared understanding of this central cultural idea.
Soldiers have died in defense of freedom. Civil rights leaders have been imprisoned for freedom. People of goodwill have suffered for the cause of freedom.
Each of these sacrifices, and numerous others, reveal to us that freedom is not narcissism. Freedom is not selfishness. Freedom is not about our own small worlds.
Freedom is about human dignity. It’s about human flourishing. Freedom is about the common good. It’s about selfless service. Freedom is the power to do what is right and noble.
In this way, freedom was (and is) the birthright of those who are a part of the American experiment. Whether this experiment – now 244 years old – survives or implodes depends upon the willingness of Americans to live their lives according to true freedom and its accompanying virtues.