In traditional Christianity, the motif of liberation and deliverance is a strong one—so strong that the story of Israel’s freedom from bondage in Egypt and the spiritual liberation of humanity from sin through Christ’s death and resurrection can easily become confused with ideas of earthly, political liberty from which they are clearly and sharply distinct. We have seen this sort of conflation of spiritual and earthly emancipation in the liberation theology of Latin American Catholics, who give their preaching of the Gospel a steady dose of Marxism and vague endorsements of revolutionary violence, but lately here in America we have started to see a similar blurring of the lines between Christian spiritual liberty and political liberty, the latter of which assuredly has its historical roots in the lands and traditions of Christian civilization. The latest proponent of the idea of a divinely bestowed “universal freedom” has been none other than President George W. Bush.
On Sept. 12, President Bush spoke with an assembled group of conservative journalists, who relayed his comments. Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, quoted the president’s explanation for his confidence in the “rightness of his strategy” and the eventual success of the administration’s “freedom agenda” in the Middle East:
Freedom is universal. … And I recognize there’s a debate around the world about the kind of—whether that principle is real. I call it moral relativism, if people do not believe that certain people can be free. I mean, I just cannot subscribe to that. People—I know it upsets people when I ascribe that to my belief in an Almighty, and that I believe a gift from that Almighty is universal freedom. That’s what I believe.
This was hardly the first time Bush had asserted, as he had at the Republican National Convention in 2004, that freedom was “God’s gift to every man and woman in this world.” This had played an important epideictic role in earlier speeches that raised the president’s rhetoric to the level of the revelatory and prophetic, freeing it from the burdens of proof and deliberation. This claim had also served a useful political function in rallying both Christians and secular conservatives to support global liberal revolution and tapped into an American tradition dating back to Lincoln of closely mixing biblically derived rhetoric with specific political goals. As the respected literary scholar and great conservative thinker M.E. Bradford wrote of this mixture in Lincoln’s rhetoric in the context of the American political tradition:
We [Americans] were a fellowship of ‘the Book’ and took all government and political philosophy—even the Constitution—to be practical and unworthy of mention in the same breath with Holy Scripture. Politics might, within reason, be tested against revealed truth. But we never imagined more than a tangency for the political and the sacred—never a holy beginning or conclusion by politics.
For the same reason, there is something deeply disturbing about the conflation of God’s gifts and political liberty, and especially with the political liberation of other nations. (Disregard for the moment whether such liberation of other peoples is entirely genuine or in the best interests of the United States.) First, it can dangerously blur the lines between the sacred and the profane, investing the “freedom agenda” with a divine mandate and the presumption to represent God’s will in a shockingly impious manner. Even more importantly, in President Bush’s claim that God bestows universal freedom on all of humanity there is the danger of encouraging despair and loss of faith in a God who supposedly gives universal freedom but nonetheless withholds it from billions of our fellow human beings and who denied it to most of humanity for thousands of years. Bush’s assertion ends up sounding rather like a theistic version of Rousseau’s “man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains,” which is a suggestion either of divine impotence or an invitation to revolutionary warfare to realize God’s supposed purpose of bestowing universal, political freedom on the world.
Friedrich Hayek, who, it may fairly be said, gave more thought to the question of the origins of liberty than George W. Bush has, once wrote:
Freedom is an artefact of civilization that released man from the trammels of the small group, the momentary moods of which even the leader had to obey. Freedom was made possible by the gradual evolution of the discipline of civilization which is at the same time the discipline of freedom.
Political freedom is a product of culture and habit, the fruit of the discipline of civilization. As beings created in the image and likeness of God, it might be said that all men have the potential to acquire these habits and learn this discipline over a great length of time, but to believe that this discipline is more or less automatically inherent in all people right now is to dismiss both the effects of the fall and the contingencies of history. Christians know that men are created free in the sense that we have free will, but they also know that to fully realize and perfect that freedom, they are called to obedience to God’s will. In any case, we should not mistake man’s free will or the spiritual liberty Christians believe they have received in Christ as sacred justifications for any particular political arrangement or any particular set of guaranteed liberties from governmental interference.
When the Apostle Paul wrote that “there is neither slave nor free” in Christ (Gal. 3:28), it was a statement of the unity in Christ that transcends all categories of earthly identity—it was decidedly not a statement that Christ necessarily wills the earthly personal and political freedom of all. That kind of earthly freedom may indeed be desirable, just, and worthwhile, but we make a crucial mistake if we declare it simply to be God’s gift. On the one hand, it would make a particular kind of earthly freedom a divinely ordained religious command about which there could be no debate or deliberation, investing in its partisans the self-righteousness of the chosen few. On the other hand, it induces a complacency about the need for the preservation and protection of liberty, taking it as something that is simply given and guaranteed by God, which requires little or none of the diligence that the Founders believed to be necessary to protect inherited rights against the usurpation of government. Bush’s idea makes the truly significant and meaningful redemption that God has given us through His Son only one part of the deliverance. If we believe President Bush, God also has a sort of program of earthly liberation. It is an attempt to immanentize the spiritual liberty of Christians as political liberty, while at the same time stripping this liberty of any association with revelation. It is what political philosopher and philosopher of history Eric Voegelin would have called a modern gnostic error. This idea is injurious to the deliberative nature of republican government and has inspired the justification of revolutionary violence in a questionable cause in Iraq.
God has created man with the capacity and ability to develop the discipline Hayek spoke of, but it is precisely in respecting man’s freedom—man’s free will, that is—that God has left us to struggle to acquire that discipline in the political and other earthly spheres. God does not give us universal freedom, just as He does not establish universal earthly justice: these are tasks left to us to realize in confirmation of our existence as free beings. Freedom is a discipline to be learned and a state to be earned, just as with anything else in life. When men have established a free order, it seems reasonable that it is with the blessing and guidance of a merciful God, but specifically political freedom is not something God automatically grants to all people.
President Bush evidently doesn’t understand the objections of his critics if he thinks any of us are saying that there are people who are inherently incapable of living in political liberty. Without our cultural and political inheritance, our traditions, the institutions established by our ancestors, and the cultivation of the habits and mentality necessary to make liberal self-government (or something approximating it) function, Anglo-Americans would be equally at a loss and would flail around just as blindly as anyone else. To the extent that we misunderstand or have forgotten our own history, we have already lost large parts of our constitutional tradition. But in our tradition, it took the better part of four centuries for a parliamentary institution to mature and stake a claim to sovereignty; it took another half a century for those claims to be resolved in Parliament’s favor; it took another century to cultivate the colonial spirit of self-government. Christians may reasonably see in many of these developments the fortuitous co-operation between divine grace and human ingenuity, but nothing would be more mistaken than to confuse this highly contingent, historical evolution of political structures in one relatively small corner of the world with the fullness of God’s plan or to claim divine approval for a political agenda that has no clear basis in Scripture or tradition.
If Bush speaks of God giving men universal freedom, he might as well say that God has given man universal bread or universal world peace, while tacitly ignoring hunger and war. God is Spirit. He grants to men spiritual liberty from sin and death—far greater liberation, surely, than the tawdry Rights of Man. It is not faithful to the Christian tradition, and possibly rather unhinged, to say that God gives man universal freedom. God is the Lord of the free and the unfree, and it is surely important for the hope of those Christians who do not enjoy the blessings of liberty to know that they are no less His children in spite of not experiencing political freedom.
Daniel Larison is a Ph.D. student in Byzantine history at the University of Chicago.