Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Thoughts on Freedom

There's been a lot of buzz about David Brooks' column from yesterday (being held ransom behind TimesSelect) on his meeting with the President, particularly this one sentence from when the conversation turned to democracy.
Bush is convinced that history is moving in the direction of democracy, or as he said Friday: “It’s more of a theological perspective. I do believe there is an Almighty, and I believe a gift of that Almighty to all is freedom. And I will tell you that is a principle that no one can convince me that doesn’t exist.”
That single sentence has taken a lot of criticism from the blogosphere. A lot of it has focused on political philosophy and the challenges of introducing the idea of freedom in the Muslim world, but there has been a different, and as equally interesting, critique of this notion, namely that it trivializes the freedom we experience in God. David Kuo:
"I believe a gift of that Almighty to all is freedom," Bush said. How completely correct and how outrageously wrong he is. God does give us freedom. But that gift of freedom is not a freedom based on a form of government - it is the freedom to live as individuals with total, complete, and utter free will. It is the freedom to choose or to reject God, the freedom to choose or to reject God's gifts. THAT is God's gift of freedom. To confuse that gift with a form of government reflects both theological and political naivety.
Daniel Larison:
Immanentist ideologies and substitute religions stand in opposition to the Gospel. Compared to the liberation from sin and death that Christ has accomplished, how insignificant is political liberty! This does not mean that the latter is itself undesirable, but that it is hardly the chief priority of God’s salvific plan for man, and it is precisely for the salvation of men from sin and death and not their amelioration of their political status that God became man.
Ross Douthat:
The gift of freedom that Christ promises is far more real than anything else in this world, if Christian teaching on the matter is correct. On the other hand, there's nothing that's political about that promise, and the attempt to transform God's promise of freedom through Jesus Christ into a this-world promise of universal democracy is the worst kind of "immanentizing the eschaton" utopian bullshit.
And so on...

There's a common theme in all these, that because the religious is much more important than the political and worldly, that the political and worldly essentially doesn't matter and that the religious shouldn't influence the political and worldly. I strongly disagree with this.

Are they right that Christ's promise of freedom is "far more real than anything else in this world?" Of course. But does that mean God doesn't care about the conditions in which we live while here on earth? I don't think so. This is a trap I've seen Kuo fall into before. that Christians should focus more on Christ and less on politics. Of course, the first part is correct, but I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. There is a clear role for the state laid out in the Bible, the most obvious being Christ's call To "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's." Does God not care how man is then treated by the state? Does human dignity given by God to mankind not include treatment by the state? I don't think so. As long as we're here in this world, we should be living our lives as Christians - and that doesn't just mean worrying about ourselves, but about the rest of God's creation as well.

The simple truth is that t00 many people live lives devoid of any trace of dignity given to them by God. Kuo recognizes this, as he is often mildly scolding those who read his blog for not giving enough to the poor (even Americans, who, as a whole, are overwhelmingly give the most of their time and money to charity than any other country in the world), so I'm not sure why it is suddenly irrelevant when it comes to how people living in other countries are treated by their governments. Does it pale in comparison to "the liberation from sin and death that Christ has accomplished," as Larison believes? Of course. Does it still matter very much? Yes.

To begin with, the teachings of the Catholic Church, to which I belong, are very clear on the relationship between God, the people and governments. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), man has the freedom to do both good and evil, but that he is truly free only "in the service of what is good and just." That is, having freedom is different from being free, and the choice do do evil "is an abuse of freedom."

With respect to governing institutions, the CCC is equally as clear. It argues that authority governs according to the consent of the governed, that is that "Authority does not derive its moral legitimacy from itself," and that "the choice of the political regime and the appointment of rulers are left to the free decision of the citizens." But this does not mean that any old despot can rule if the people initially say so.
"Regimes whose nature is contrary to the natural law, to the public order, and to the fundamental rights of persons cannot achieve the common good of the nations on which they have been imposed."
And without serving the common good, that authority loses it's legitimacy.
"Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, 'authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse.'"
The Bible itself also has plenty to say about how people should be governed - and it overwhelmingly sides with freedom. Peter tells the Elect Pilgrims that it is the will of God that they live as free men, using their liberty to honor God. Peter is not just referring to the freedom man has in Christ's death and resurrection, but also to man's status while in this life with regards to governing authorities, as well as how they live their individual lives. The question then becomes whether governance over such a people should be entrusted to a king or to some other form of leadership, and what that should be. For the most part the Bible speaks of kings, but it is made clear, in Samuel, Judges, Kings, Proverbs and elsewhere, that the king also serves at the will of the people, so to speak. There's even references to what would later become known as democracy. In Exodus, Moses' father-in-law Jethro tells him that he cannot carry out all of his responsibilities on his own, and that he should pick honest men from among his followers to represent the people. In Deuteronomy, however, Moses does Jethro one better, and tells the Israelites to pick from among themselves "wise, understanding and knowledgeable men...and I will make them heads over you."

So we establish that, as Peter said, liberty and freedom for man is God's will. Kuo even accepts this, when he talks about "the freedom to live as individuals." What is that other than individual liberty? And who controls our individual liberties here on Earth? The question then becomes, what kind of government today can best uphold mankind's right to liberty and to live as free men? Does God care more about a people being governed by a hereditary king or about a people being governed by a system that respects human dignity and liberty? I'd have to guess the latter. So if a system of heriditary government (constitutional monarchies by and large no longer being run by the monarch) can no longer respect those gifts of dignity and liberty, and no longer governs with the consent of the people, do we stick with the king or do we stick with the consent of the governed?

The men who founded this country seemed to think it was the latter. They believed men were created equal and given unalienable rights by their Creator. Furthermore, they believed the role of governments was to secure these rights. In other words, the consent to govern came from the people, just like it did in the the time of the Old Testament and in Christ's time. When kings could no longer be trusted to govern according to the will of the people, or forgot that they served at the will of the people, Jefferson, Madison and their colleagues decided it was time to try something different. They even found it important enough to fight a war over.

Does that mean we're to start a war wherever injustice is found? Of course not, and though Bush's rhetoric sometimes gets the better of him, he hasn't done anything like that. In fact, I very much doubt "democracy" was the sole, or even the initial reason he started the war. I just find it too hard to believe that the Bush that campaigned as a realist would suddenly become such an idealist (even with 9/11 as a catalyst). I believe that like everyone else in the government and in our intelligence agencies, he believed that Saddam posed a threat to the United States, and came to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly - thats for another debate, that a free and democratic society would not produce leaders like Saddam Hussein. I believe it was the security threat of terrorism and WMD that made Bush realize the status quo of how we deal with dictatorial regimes had to change. Now, if you want to argue that the "how" of this democratization idea has been found wanting, I'd probably be likely to agree. Again, that's for another debate, but suffice it to say a lot of our commitment to democracy has consisted of settling for the group or individual least hostile to American interests and calling it democracy. In other words, what the US has been doing for decades - the status quo.

But the point of this post was to address those who make the argument that because "the liberation from sin and death that Christ has accomplished" is more important than our time here on Earth, that the latter somehow becomes completely irrelevant. I don't agree that democracy - or, more accurately, freedom - is just a nice thing to have but that God doesn't particularly care one way or the other. I'm going to side with Jefferson who argued that our Creator does care about how we are governed in this life, that He gave us all the same rights, that governments are created to uphold those rights and that politics in this world is very much connected to our belief in that Creator.

As for Bush's comments, I don't know if history is moving in the direction of (liberal) democracy, though I would like to think so. I'm under no illusions that democracy would create a perfect world, or some kind of utopia, and I doubt Bush is either. But given Churchill's description of democracy, it would make the world less worse than it otherwise might be. That's all. And while I don't know what the future holds for democracy, I absolutely think a thoroughly justifiable theological case can be made, that while God's greatest gift to man is freedom through Christ's dying and resurrection, that freedom, human dignity and liberty here on Earth are also great gifts from God - and the best way those gifts can be realized in this day is through liberal democracy.


Blogger Adam said...

The voice of reason.

3:52 PM  

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