The false idol of ‘freedom’
"Freedom for me, but not for thee."
At some point, it became all about “freedom.”
I first noticed it about 20 years ago, just after 9/11. George W. Bush was addressing a joint session of congress. Answering why terrorists hate America, Bush said: “They hate our freedoms.”
In the 20 years since, protecting “our freedoms” has been the foundation of a lot of the politics of the right wing in the United States and Canada. “Freedom” is why Republicans opposed Obama’s proposals for universal health care. “Freedom” is why Republicans opposed safety regulations around guns, even after Sandy Hook. And “freedom” is why many Republicans oppose vaccines or masking regulations. As Senator Ted Cruz recently said: “Freedom is good policy and good politics.”
But what many political conservatives mean by “freedom” these days is a lot different than what they meant by “freedom” in 2001. The full quote by George W. Bush is more nuanced. He said: “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”
It’s hard to imagine a Republican politician saying that today, because the Overton window on mainstream Republican thinking moved so far to the right during the MAGA years. People like Senator Cruz define freedom as the absence of limits on personal choice. Governor DeSantis of Florida rails against the tyranny of public health measures designed to save lives. For a lot of folks on the right these days, “freedom” means doing what you want, where you want, without any interference.
But not everyone.
Who’s in, who’s out?
Calls for “freedom” by those same politicians fall silent when it comes to schools. A recent law proposed by Florida state representative Randy Fine would see cameras placed in classrooms because “radical leftists have tried to sneak things into our school district that parents don’t agree with,” such as teaching about the history of racism in the U.S.
Calls for “freedom” also go silent around who can marry whom. Virginia Republican Bob Good recently spoke against same sex marriage on the floor of the House. The prohibitions of religion (ie: “my belief says I can’t do this”) have become intertwined with the law (ie: “my belief says you are not free to do this, either”).
And calls for “freedom” have gone completely silent around voting. Gerrymandering and moves to limit voting availability – to prevent non-existent voter fraud – have a chilling effect on opponents and skew results in the GOP’s favour. It fulfils what GOP speechwriter David Frum once wrote: “If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will abandon democracy.”
And yet, for a lot of conservatives, there is no contradiction here. As Frank Wilhoit wrote: “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.” That is to say – “Freedom for me, but not for thee.”
That definition of “freedom” seems to me to be wildly out of step with how the Bible defines freedom. In scripture, “freedom” is almost always tied – sometimes in the same passage – to communal responsibility. Like in Galatians 5:13 where we read: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Or where “freedom” is tied to an even more activist agenda as we read in 1 Corinthians: “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.”
This idea that personal “freedom” means more than our responsibility to each other has no basis in scripture. In fact, people doing whatever they want without thinking of others – or seeking power for its own sake – is precisely the sort of activity that brought down God’s wrath all over the Old Testament. Loving your neighbour, caring for them and protecting them – in short, taking responsibility for each other – now that’s a godly concept.
One that, 20 years ago, a lot more conservatives – on both sides of the border – understood.