Understanding how we came to be the “Land of the Free” points us in the direction of retaining our liberties as well as the theological justification for those freedoms.
Many years ago, in the wake of the crassly popular bumper sticker declaring, “[Excrement] Happens,” some sunny soul came up with a counterpoint: “Good Happens.” That’s nice. It’s wrong, but it’s nice. Good may be good, but it doesn’t just happen. Between Adam’s Fall and Christ’s Restoration, good has to be made to happen, and this is rarely more obvious than in the way that we relate to one another through the state.
We might not like it, but the sad fact is that the presence of anything approaching liberty has been rarer than gold. Look as long as you like over the line of history. When it comes to political power, outside of the most primitive tribal societies, the most common theme has been one of oppression. Whenever we have had the means to tyrannize our fellow man, we have done so with gusto.
This is something that our American optimism has a hard time fathoming. I don’t mean that we haven’t done our fair share of oppressing, but we tend to think of freedom as the normal way of things and problems like tyranny as bad apples in an otherwise liberty-loving basket. Too often, we think we’re free for the same reason that Kansas is flat, Florida is muggy, and California is weird. That’s just the way things are.
The reality is that our precious freedoms are neither the natural result of being red-blooded Americans, nor were they the inevitable consequence of “Progress.” Rather, they are the culmination of a chain of events, made up of fits and starts, heroes and villains, regressions and false-starts, whereby the archaic prototypes of democracy developed into our contemporary principles and practices of liberty in the United States and elsewhere.
So, how did we come to be free? As much as we would prefer not to admit it while still holding fast to our cache of Fourth of July pyrotechnics, a lot of what made us free flows from the land from which we became free. Remember, unlike its nearly concurrent Gallic cousin, the American Revolution was no attempt to create a new world ex novo but was, instead, a very English insistence on maintaining some very English rights.
The odd thing is that if you read the history of England and the way that they ruled themselves, you’re not likely to come away with the overwhelming impression that these were the founders of liberty. Just like any other group transitioning to monarchy, English chieftains, princes, and kings governed their realms according to what amounted to arbitrary power, personal vendetta, and overweening avarice. Yet, despite all this, it was through the machinations of royal ambition and elite political squabbles that the foundations for the modern democratic state were laid.
On their bumpy road to a centralized state, the English retained an artifact of their Anglo-Saxon tribal past, a council of advisors to the king known as the Witan. It is awfully tempting to posit a one-to-one, evolutionary relationship between this ancient practice and our modern House of Parliament and the Congress, but the reality is a bit more tricky. While it’d be too much to make the Witan the direct ancestor of our legislative bodies, we can safely look to it as an inspiration for what followed. At the very least it created in the imaginations of the English people the expectation for such a body.
This idea of a group charged with counseling the king endured the Norman Conquest and was mirrored in the 13th century body known as a parlement, as in the French parler or our term, to parley, “to speak.” What began as local representatives sent to aid the monarchy on financial matters took on new powers in the days of Robin Hood. No, not really, but the fictional bandit’s real-life enemy, Prince John, eventually became the hapless King John. His ineptitude and corruption led to a military defeat at the hands of his own barons and his (coerced) signing of the famous Magna Carta in 1215.
Among its many conditions were several principles which would set the tone for much of the political development in Anglo-American history. However imperfectly applied or intended, it established what others would later term Lex Rex, putting the king under the rule of the law. Cities were granted unique status with specified right distinct from the landed nobility, providing the basis for would become “lower” houses to represent the common people. International trade and the English church were to be largely free of royal control. And, most pertinent for future revolutions, taxes could not be levied without the consent of Parliament.
Now, no king likes to have his power restrained, so John and his heirs worked to evade or ignore the Magna Carta’s implications. Yet, it remained the law of the land, and, in doing so, managed to evolve and expand into an increasingly powerful Parliament determined to protect the rights of the people who, after all, had put them into office. In place of an advisory council like the Witan, this was becoming a national power in its own right.
Over the next few hundred years, English history was shaped by these factors, along with a few of a less obvious nature. England’s lack of domestic or land-bordered threats meant that kings couldn’t justify large, standing armies which, in peacetime, could’ve suppressed internal enemies as well as external ones. England’s numerous harbors and free-trade encouraged the development of a merchant class, independent of both king and aristocracy. The geographical barrier of the Channel allowed a freedom from church control not available to continental powers.
By the 17th century, many kingdoms in Europe were enamored of the “Divine Right of Kings,” the royal conceit that the monarch was God’s representative on Earth and so no one else had the right to challenge him. The Anglo-Scottish House of Stuart was keen on living out this principle, but the various Jameses and Charleses ran into trouble with Parliament. Things came to a head in 1640 when Charles I wanted money. Calling Parliament into session for the first time in over a decade, he asked his subjects for new taxes. The urban and merchant backed House of Commons agreed to do so, so long as he assented to their demands for increased authority and liberty.
As you might guess, this did not go well. The dispute sparked a period of civil war and revolution that would not come to an end entirely for a half-century. Between 1642 and 1689, England would experience martial strife, regicide, a proto-republic, a military dictatorship, a renewed monarchy with divine right dreams, a coup d’état, and finally the creation of a fully constitutional monarchy.
The semi-republican Commonwealth and then Protectorate did not last, and the democratic ideals were nearly squashed during the Restoration which followed. Nonetheless, these principles came back with a vengeance during the Glorious or Bloodless Revolution. As part of the agreement where by Queen Mary, along with her husband William, seized power from her disliked father James II, the new co-monarchs agreed to abide by a new Bill of Rights. This new document encapsulated all the previous centuries worth of evolution towards what we might call classical liberalism.
In this de facto constitution, English monarchs were limited in their rights over their people and to violate those rights would disavow their right to rule. The people were guaranteed many things we take for granted: the right to bear arms (for Protestants), free elections, free speech, rights pertaining to courts, that laws come from the people’s representatives and not the king. Many rights and privileges which Americans too often think of as uniquely theirs were articulated long before Jefferson and Madison shaped their great works.
It would take no great feat of imagination to see that many of these themes proclaimed in England came to be echoed here in America. After all, while we rightly focus much of our attention on the events of 1776, we need to remember that for over a year the American Revolution was waged by the colonists not as an independence movement but as a quest for their traditional rights as Englishmen. What we did here was an explicit continuation of what had been done there.
Far from being merely a matter of antiquarian interest, understanding the path taken to arrive at our present state of liberty is invaluable in preserving those freedoms for the future. All we have to do to see this is to look how often people today, at home and abroad, are letting their freedoms slip away in the face of threats and promises made by would-be tyrants and demagogues. We’ve become quick to yield up our freedoms to supposed heroes who vow do battle with the hated “Them,” whoever the “Them” of the day might be.
The first thing we can take from this history is that people can’t be trusted. A lot of the people who created our democratic institutions did so because they could see the beauty of liberty, but a great many did so because it extended their power or expanded their bank accounts. Even more acutely, most of the freedoms now enshrined in the Magna Carta and the U.S. Constitution weren’t handed out liberally by well-intentioned monarchs but had to be forced from them by the threat or presence of war.
This is the reality of the Fall lived out in our history. Human nature, corrupted as it is by sin, will not lend itself generosity of spirit when it holds unchecked power in its hands. When we face political leaders in our time, we must remember that those on our side are as bent by their sin as those on the other side are, and their heads can be turned by the allure of power as anyone’s. We must always guard against the danger of giving over to a trusted leader powers that are not restrained by clear limitations.
The second thing we gain from this story is that our freedoms are not arbitrary. Human beings thrive under conditions of freedom while they diminish under oppression. I know that our postmodern sensibilities bristle at the merest suggestion that one way of life is better than another, and much of English and American history gives us cause for caution. But, it is not hard to conclude that a life lived in liberty is better than one enduring tyranny. Freedom does not guarantee human flourishing, but it is the necessary condition for it.
This is the reality of the Imago Dei put on display. When living in a world where their abilities are not hampered by state-sanctioned limitations, human creativity of all sorts has been set free to make the world we now enjoy and too often take for granted. Where human dignity is prized as an innate good conferred by God and not merely the gift of society or the state, our potential to live as vice-regents in creation is set free to flourish as our Creator intended.
If we ignore the reality and ubiquity of human sin, we will fall prey to the temptations to give up our liberty to someone we think we can trust today, setting the stage for the same power to go to someone we know we shouldn’t. In the same way, if we pretend that liberty is just another way of life, neither better nor worse than any alternative, then we’ll cut ourselves off from the potential of human flourishing made possible by the presence of freedom.
However, liberty without the Christian Worldview inevitably yields ground to libertinism, the passion to live life without any limitations whatsoever. This, in turn, leads to power struggles and appeals to the state to intervene to maintain the freedoms of the favored over against the outcasts. And, everyday we see more and more how this plays out in reality. It is only by maintaining our awareness of the reality of God as an ultimate and unconstrained power above all earthly powers that we can restrain both our own moral wandering in the absence of restraint and the state’s ever-present tendency to usurp authority.
Christianity not only explains the importance of liberty but, by these concepts of human sin and human dignity, it lays the groundwork for freedom as the sine qua non of God’s Shalom on Earth. It is only by holding together these two points of the Christian Worldview that we can expect to preserve our freedoms in this world.