Skip to main content

Freedom: Part 1

Submitted by Ken Watts on Wed, 02/04/2009 - 18:24

I'VE BEEN THINKING ABOUT freedom lately—about what it is, about what we believe it is.

Everyone's in favor of it, at least in this part of the world. But there can be quite a chasm between meanings, even when we agree on a word.

Some time ago I wrote about freedom in a theological context. I pointed out the strangeness of the concept of free will, how it's almost self-contradictory, and I suggested that the real use of it, in a religious context, was to get God off the hook for evil:

Apologist: God is completely good, and created everything.

Skeptic: Then where did evil come from?

Apologist: Humans.

Skeptic: But if God created everything, didn't he create humans, as well?

Apologist: Yes, but he created us with free will, so we could choose to love him. We used that free will to choose to introduce evil into the world.

Skeptic: Oh.

Apologist: Don't you feel guilty, now!

Skeptic: Well...

But freedom is not just a religious concept. It's an important part of our national identity. We all know that the United States is the "land of the free", and we all know that this is a good thing.

Recently it has occurred to me that the word means quite different things, depending on which end of the political spectrum you stand.

Take a fairly obvious example: prayer in the public school system. I've received not a few emails complaining about the government's interference with children's freedom to pray in school.

From the conservative mindset, it's a no-brainer. People have a right to religious faith. They have a right to pray. The Government shouldn't interfere with this right. Period.

A liberal, looking at the exact same circumstances, sees freedom quite differently.

Again, it's a no-brainer.

People, especially children, should be free from having other people's religion crammed down their throats—particularly in a public school. Teachers are free to pray, if they choose, but not to force prayer onto children who may worship a different God, or no God at all. Parents have a right to expect that their children will be free from this kind of coercion. Period.

So what's going on?

In this case, the liberal position seems to interpret freedom as focused on the child, and the child's family. If a child comes from a Christian home, the liberal position is that that child should not be forced, in a public school, by a Hindu teacher, to pray a Hindu prayer to a Hindu god.

Teachers are employees of the government, and, as such, shouldn't be using their authority in the classroom to advance their personal religious agendas. Parents should be able to assume that their children's religious freedom is not violated in school.

And, of course, the same principle applies if the child happens to be Hindu, or an atheist, or any other religion, and the teacher happens to be Christian.

The conservative view is a bit tangled, and a little more difficult to explain.

I'll take that up next time.

To be continued...