Freedom & Liberty
This document attempts to illuminate the intimate relationship between spiritual freedom and political liberty. We recommend reading these articles first: “What is Freedom?”, “Obstacles to Freedom”, “Path to Freedom” & “Liberty & Negative Rights”
In the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America from Britain we see a prime example of the relationship between spiritual freedom and liberty. Although the colonists were well off by 18th century standards and enjoyed more freedom than many back in Britain, in part because of the much lower density of people and greater independence from civil and even religious authorities of British life, they did not accept what would have been seen as rather sensible concessions to the British crown. Instead, they risked life and limb to assert their independence for the principles of liberty.
It would be silly to say that every American fought for the same exact reasons. Nevertheless, it is clear that the principles of liberty were understood by all on some level and fought for vigorously. The colonists understood that if they conceded on supposedly trivial practical points to the British crown, they would have conceded all principles as well. The non-spiritual man is focused solely on the practical, while the spiritual man has his eye on the principles as well.
Stamping Out Liberty
The stamp act of 1765, for example, required colonists to purchase stamped paper for a variety of uses, from legal documents to magazines and playing cards. It covered 54 types of articles. If they were not printed on stamped paper, they were considered null, void and illegal. British soldiers were also given the legal “right” to forcibly enter a colonist’s home without a proper warrant & check for unstamped documents.
Usually, the colonists were okay with external and indirect taxes that taxed imports an exports, for instance. But a direct tax on the colonists was unprecedented and violated the rights of the colonists because it was not passed by the local government, nor could colonists represent themselves in court locally- they would have had to travel to Nova Scotia to defend themselves. And this was a direct tax on the colonists directly from Britain. British politicians even tried to argue that the colonists had “virtual representation”, but most colonists did not buy this. For these reasons the stamp act was “taxation without representation.”
The colonists reacted through massive defiance and some by threatening the lives of the appointed stamp distributors and others who were directly involved with implementing the act, and also burning down their homes. While perhaps not the most indicated strategy, it was very effective. What transpired in the following years is history, of course, and how this country got started. Even Benjamin Franklin’s house was attacked, because the people thought he supported the act, but his wife stood armed with a pistol in the house and Franklin’s friends came to rescue him.
A few other significant events took place after that that lead to the American revolution. One was the Boston Tea Party. The interesting thing was that the tea act of 1773 actually lowered the price of tea. But the colonists rejected and defied the tea act based on the same principle: That the British parliament had no right to tax them, since they weren’t being represented.
So the American revolution was not just about economic matters. It was a war fought for the principle of representation and liberty. The British government failed to observe the right of the colonists and the colonists drew the line and finally fought back when it was crossed too many times. Another people would not have fought back. They would have simply accepted the taxes as a necessary evil.
But what the American people knew at the time, and the founders especially, was that principles were important. But ask yourself, was this really a “practical” response? Would it be called reasonable today or then? Of course not! The colonists decided that principles were even more important than comfort and practicality. They did not “adapt” or “make the best of things” or “get real”. Instead, they took a stand and fought back.
Such conviction and resolve can only come from possessing spiritual liberty. It is this that fuels every war of independence and every act of courage against an oppressor. You cannot have liberty without first possessing spiritual freedom. It is the latter that drives the former into being.
It is the unfortunate truth that revolutions without a mature sense of spiritual freedom always end in more oppression and slavery afterwards. While it is spiritual freedom which drives them, if there is not enough understanding and internalization of this freedom, liberty is quickly lost afterwards. One only look at the French revolution or Haitian Independence to see such a phenomenon. When spiritual freedom is lost, liberty always follows the same fate.
“Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.” ― Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, (1835)
Jesus & Political Liberty
If I may switch gears a bit, I’ve always wondered why Jesus didn’t liberate the Jews from their Roman oppressors. Frankly, I understand the ancient Jews’ anger towards Jesus. If I had been in their place, and had known Jesus personally, I would have probably felt the same way. How can THIS be the messiah, when he has not delivered us from our evil oppressors? How can this be our savior?
But I have come to understand that Jesus came to give us something much more important- that is, the internal spiritual freedom that is required in order to achieve political liberty. It’s like the teaching “give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and feed him for a lifetime.” Human history is replete with military victories. But how many of those have granted true peace, freedom and liberty? Rather than providing a fleeting victory, spiritual freedom guarantees us a lasting liberty.
When we lose our purpose, and we forget the spiritual and moral principles, we lose our dignity and our liberty.
“Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.” – Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)
Pope Benedict XVI’s first homily as Pope in 2005 was about the parable of the lost sheep in the desert. He says that there are many kinds of deserts, and goes on to say:
“There is the desert of God’s darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life. The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.”
How Political Liberty Affects Spiritual Freedom
You can be spiritually free, while being politically oppressed. But a lack of external freedom often diminishes our internal freedom. When a people are used to being oppressed, they often become apathetic and lose confidence in themselves, giving up their spiritual freedom as well. Spiritual freedom grows when it is nourished by society. If it is not properly nourished, it may well wither and die. But this need not be the case. If this freedom is well-founded and strong, it will continue to flourish within the individual, regardless of external conditions.
For some, oppression only emboldens the heart, strengthens the resolve and increases spiritual freedom. This is ultimately a choice. But our external state does have an effect on our internal state, and visa-versa, though which effect depends on us. We must turn these internal deserts into lush gardens within ourselves and externalize them into liberty.
“It is necessary, then, to appeal to the spiritual and moral capacities of the human person and to the permanent need for his inner conversion, so as to obtain social changes that will really serve him. The acknowledged priority of the conversion of heart in no way eliminates but on the contrary imposes the obligation of bringing the appropriate remedies to institutions and living conditions when they are an inducement to sin, so that they conform to the norms of justice and advance the good rather than hinder it.” (Catechism, 1888)
We hope this document has given you a good idea of the relationship between spiritual freedom and political liberty. It is a relationship that is too often forgotten or downplayed. Often these two are talked about in isolation, as if they have nothing to do with each other, or worse, as if they were incompatible with each other. Especially these days, with a growing number of people claiming to be agnostic or atheist, it is incomprehensible or even insulting to some to consider that man’s spiritual nature is inextricably tied to his political liberty.
This spiritual nature is part of man, though, and it isn’t limited to any one religion or spiritual practice. Indeed, it is manifested in all of them, and even in the so-called non-religious or non-spiritual man. Christians believe that the full embodiment of those principles are in Christ. But one not need be a Christians to understand and apply these universal principles.
Liberty without a spiritual, moral foundation is a dead liberty. And spiritual freedom urges us to push for political liberty. Let us increase both.