Liberty has not had a good year. I don’t just mean that government legislation has recently prohibited, inter alia, family gatherings, singing, Christian worship and going to the pub, though that is bad. I mean that the concept of liberty itself is increasingly unpopular. The term ‘libertarian’ has become a term of political abuse. Liberty has become associated with the selfish, the uncaring and the callous. What could be further from the Christian ethic than an insistence on the right to freedom when surely Christ bids us become the slave of all?
The question I want to explore is not whether or not these restrictions on our liberty are currently justified, but whether Christians should be concerned about liberty at all. Does it matter whether we possess liberty or is anxiety about liberty the mark of the self-obsessed and privileged who cannot bear to be told what to do? Should liberty weigh in the scales of our calculations much at all? Is liberty, political liberty, a Christian concern?
I want to suggest that political liberty is a legitimate and necessary Christian concern and that arguing, speaking and campaigning for liberty should be a priority for the church as a whole and the individuals within it.
If we are offhand and indifferent to the state of liberty, we stand askance from the historic Christian tradition. The fact we live in a society in which, until now, liberty has been valued, tended and defended, is not an accident but the legacy of centuries of Christian influence on our nation. In his preface to his magisterial ‘Institutes of Elenctic Theology’ the Italian theologian Francis Turretin addresses the council of his home city, Geneva. He says that Geneva is a city with many blessings ‘yet there are two illustrious above the others which commend its dignity: religion, than which nothing is more holy, and liberty, than which nothing is sweeter.’ How could Turretin say such a thing?
In his recent book ‘Slaying Leviathan’, Glenn S. Sunshine summarises the history of Christian political thought. He explains that ‘the classical definition of liberty is the freedom to act as one wills within the bounds set by natural and divine law and the laws of the state. In the Christian tradition, the laws of the State were supposed to conform to natural law, or they were unjust.’ He continues, ‘Specifically, liberty referred to the freedom to pursue good ends of your own choice within the bounds of natural and divine law. Liberty thus included a moral imperative: the only legitimate ends had to be virtuous themselves and had to be pursued by virtuous means.’
We can pick out a couple of key ideas in this definition. First, Christian liberty is not simply the absence of constraints. Rather, it is the absence of constraint on our ability to pursue virtuous ends. Christian liberty presupposes a given, natural, order to things in which human beings have a purpose determined by God prior to any human construct. Liberty is the freedom to attain to that purpose. Second, liberty is not opposed to obedience to the state. Liberty is not threatened by a law against theft. Instead, such a law secures liberty because it protects my property even as it restricts my ability to threaten others’. Liberty is not anarchy but the proper ordering of life under God-given authority in the home, the state and the church.
Nevertheless, the state can be a threat to liberty. When laws constrict human flourishing, either by failing to protect God-given rights or by compelling speech or acts contrary to God’s purposes, those laws are illiberal. That is, they remove the freedom to attain to God’s purpose for human life. This is why, for instance, the fact the law permits abortion is illiberal. It is illiberal because it takes away the freedom of the baby to grow and develop its human potential as God has given it the right to do. Laws can be illiberal in another way. A law that restricts freedom of speech, and therefore thought, is illiberal not because all things should be thought or said but because the capacity to discern what should be thought and said is a key component of human maturity and flourishing. Of course, the absence of illiberal laws is necessary but not sufficient to enjoy liberty. A man can be enslaved by many more things than the state. Nevertheless, the Christian tradition has understood that the state must be constrained to allow true human liberty to flourish.
In these terms, then, liberty is not a charter for selfishness or solipsism. It is not, as so many contemporary people believe, simply a bare absence of authority and value. Were that the case, liberty would do to the human spirit what a vacuum does to human lungs. Rather, true liberty is the sun and the soil in which human persons can flourish and bear the fruit of love, peace and joy for which they were made. It is no wonder, then, that the gospel of Jesus Christ, a message centred on the redemption of humanity, is a charter for liberty. ‘So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’, Jesus says. Yes, of course, he is referring here to the slavery to sin that lies deep in the fallen human condition. But if Jesus was prepared to go to such lengths to rip out the roots of slavery from the human heart itself, is it not true, a fortiori, that he must be opposed to slavery imposed from the outside from the state?
I hope this brief sketch is sufficient to explain why liberty should be no fringe interest of the Christian but rather central to our vision of life. Christians have for centuries prayed and worked and died for a society where they and their neighbours can lead ‘peaceful and quiet lives’, unrestricted and unmolested by the state, allowed to pursue the end for which they were created. Where friendships can be forged, families nurtured, knowledge pursued, and worship enjoyed. As C.S. Lewis says,
‘The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden — that is what the State is there for.’
Concern for liberty, then, is a necessary component of our love for our neighbour. We cannot claim to love our fellow citizens and be indifferent to whether the political framework under which we live allows him or her to flourish as a human being. It is worth mentioning that political liberty is particularly important for the poor and marginalised. This is because the rich and the elite can often find a way out from under government oppression, either by hiring a lawyer, making a donation, paying a bribe or, in extremis, leaving the country to go somewhere with more freedom. The poor, on the other hand, don’t have such room for manoeuvre, and it is they, most of all, who depend on political liberty to be able to live the life they choose without unnecessary restriction or obstacle.
Let us hope that the constraints we live under now, and their rationale, are temporary; that soon we will be able to attend weddings of more than 30, have a pint with friends, and sing the praises of our Lord with gusto without interference from the state. But if they prove longer lasting, if this is the ghastly ‘new normal’, then it is we Christians, for the sake of our Lord and our neighbour, who should be in the forefront of the battle to restore the liberty that God has given us.