Freedom in America: Long Taken for Granted, Now in Need of Defending
On the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia (in which I was fortunate to participate as a high school junior), my wife and I founded Acta Sanctorum, a Chicago-based Christian non-profit “devoted to transforming the present world into one that is more free, peaceful, and just by promoting individual, social, and political responsibility in Slovakia and other post-Communist countries with the vision of contributing to the construction and preservation of a good society.”
In the first decade of ministry, we focused exclusively on Slovakia, where I have argued in the public square that a good society stands on three basic pillars: freedom, peace, and justice. These pillars naturally emerged as I reflected on the deepest yearnings of every human being and which factors enabled human flourishing. I came to believe that if a political theory or practice accentuates only one of these pillars—any of the three—it should be considered inadequate or even erroneous.
I was not disappointed by my lack of originality when I discovered in the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” In their book The Good Society, sociologist Robert N. Bellah and his colleagues hold that four “classical criteria of good society—peace, prosperity, freedom, justice—all today depend on a new experiment in democracy.” All three terms are also mentioned in the US Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter “Economic Justice for All,” which links them to the central theological concept of “God’s Kingdom.”
A good society has clearly defined values and ideals that shape its moral identity, social relations, and subsequently politics. The construction of such a society must stand on the aforementioned pillars; if one is missing or weak, that society would become a worse place to live in. Prosperity is also an important characteristic of a good society, but I think that based on dozens of examples, one can reasonably conclude that a society that is—in the true sense of the word—free, peaceful, and just will also be prosperous in most cases.
If I have correctly identified the pillars of a good society, then the basic task of every Christian who is motivated by love of neighbor and every responsible citizen who cares about the common good would be to protect freedom, promote justice, and pursue peace. It is understandable that there is a plurality of views on how these terms should be defined, whether there is a hierarchy of importance and, if so, which pillar would function as the cornerstone of a good society—a discussion for another time.
The aim of this piece is more modest: to remind that any good society must stand on all three pillars and that the emphasis must always be placed on strengthening the weakest among them. To use a different image, a tripod is only as stable as its weakest leg. If we have accepted that a good society indeed stands on freedom, justice, and peace we will, among other things, be careful that our effort to strengthen one pillar will not weaken the others and undermine the entire structure. If, for example, our desire for justice was not tempered by our commitment to freedom and peace, it could result in an even more unjust society than the one we are trying to ameliorate. Human history is replete with grave injustices committed by justice zealots.
In light of what has been said so far, someone like me who once lived in a totalitarian society finds it surprising and troubling that so many American churches have defined their mission as “to work for peace and justice in our world” but have neglected the defense of freedom as an essential part of their public ministry. The irony is that at present some of these churches, instead of expanding their mission, have reduced it to pursuing “social justice” and more specifically to fighting “systemic racism.” Moreover, their conception of justice is frequently not understood in light of historic Christianity but left-wing progressive ideologies. The political slogan, “No justice, no peace,” and superficial clichés have replaced serious theological reflection on what is needed to build and maintain a good society.
The latest issue of Harvard Magazine (January – February 2022) opens with an article titled “A Just World at Peace,” in which Harvard president Lawrence S. Bacow cites the vision of Harvard Divinity School (my alma mater), which is to “provide an intellectual home where scholars and professionals from around the globe research and teach the varieties of religion, in service of a just world at peace across religious and cultural divides.” Bacow concludes his piece by saying that the work of the divinity school makes him “optimistic about our future, about the possibility of a just world, a world of peace.”
It is noteworthy that neither the word “free” nor any of its lexical cognates appears in Bacow’s page-long article, just like it does not appear in the vision statement of Harvard Divinity School. This only adds to the lack of “optimism” about the state and future direction of America’s most prestigious university among those of us who care about protecting freedom in all its forms and manifestations (not only) at our educational institutions. We should pay close attention every time a discussion of justice and peace does not include any reference to freedom and interrogate why there is an omission of one of the central pillars of a good society.
With the weakening of the influence of Christianity in the public sphere, we encounter similar trends in wider society. Half a century ago, the sweet sound of the Beatles song “All You Need Is Love” was carried on the airwaves. Today, we hear a cacophony of voices from the mainstream media trying to convince us that all we need in America today is justice, with an ever-expanding number of different adjectives preceding the noun. Anyone who begs to differ faces the risk of being called homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, sexist, fascist, or—what many fear today most—racist. And subsequently “canceled.”
This is, of course, not to minimize the importance of justice for a good society. If we look at Slovakia in the last three decades, the most disturbed pillar is justice. Corruption is rampant, so it is not surprising that in 2018 the crowds in the city squares—the largest since the Velvet Revolution in 1989—did not demand more freedom or peace but justice. The outcome of Slovakia’s presidential elections in 2019 and especially the general elections in 2020 clearly showed which pillar of Slovak society citizens want to strengthen the most at the moment.
After a quarter-century of living in the United States, I published in June 2020 an article in a major Slovak newspaper with the provocative title that in English means, “America has many problems, but it is not a racist country.” I consider it unlikely that such an article would be accepted for publication in a similar newspaper in today’s United States. Although I have long believed that racism is evil and must be addressed on both the individual and institutional level, I do not think that it is the most pressing problem the United States is facing. It is not justice but freedom that is currently most endangered in this country.
I am open to being proven wrong. The problem is that it is nowadays difficult, if not impossible, to have an honest debate (not only) about racism in the American public square without a person who disagrees with the loudest narrative facing abusive name-calling, public shaming, intimidation, bullying, or even the loss of one’s job. It is then understandable that many have consciously or unconsciously adopted the strategy of what has been widely referred to as virtue-signaling; Joshua Mitchell in his excellent book American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time calls this innocence-signaling, and I tend to view it as obedience-signaling. Others remain passive bystanders.
But some have been speaking out. In “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” published by Harper’s Magazine in July 2020, 153 public figures of diverse backgrounds only stated the obvious:
The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.
This letter is one of many indications that we must now focus on strengthening the freedom pillar, starting with freedom of speech, which is indispensable for democracy. It is certainly a paradox because this country has freedom in its DNA. Many citizens of this country take it for granted and cannot imagine ever losing it. As someone who grew up under a Communist regime, I am naturally sensitive to the absence of this pillar in mainstream public rhetoric and its weakening in real life, which is undoubtedly happening in America today.
History teaches us that the loss of freedom can happen quickly and is often unexpected for most of the population. It takes a relatively small number of committed individuals to change a political system into one that enables them to maintain power by oppressing fellow citizens. I do not have to look far for examples. My late father was born a month after the 1948 Czechoslovak coup and had to live for over forty years under the Communist Party’s rule. This happened despite the fact that the Democratic Party decisively won the free elections in Slovakia two years earlier.
Authoritarian leaders frequently attain power by invoking the ideal of justice. The main goal of the Communist ideology was to rectify past injustices. The wolf came in sheep’s clothing. Once in power, these leaders used nefarious methods to maintain power including censorship, indoctrination, and propaganda—presented as an accurate portrayal of reality. The Communist Party in the Soviet Union as well as in Czechoslovakia spread its lies daily through the newspaper called Pravda (“Truth”).
From the governed, totalitarian systems require obedience or at least obedience-signaling. In my country of origin, this could take on many different forms, including displaying in apartment windows stick flags of Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union when the country observed its important May holidays: International Workers’ Day and Victory Day. In the 1980s, the era I remember well, the majority of the population did not believe in Marxist-Leninist doctrine and in private were critical of Communist leaders, often making fun of them. As long as they were going along with the system and did not oppose it publicly, they were fine.
It would be a mistake to draw too many parallels between the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia and the illiberal “woke culture” in the United States, but it would also be wrong not to see any similarities between the two. The erosion of freedom—which is real in this country and has intensified in recent years—in the name of “social justice” should make every democracy-loving citizen, whether liberal or conservative, not only concerned but also resolved to defend America’s founding ideals and preserve its best traditions.
Defending freedom is never easy. It requires an unwavering commitment to truth and courage to speak it publicly. Václav Havel’s 1978 influential essay “The Power of the Powerless,” where he discusses the concept of “living in truth,” and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard commencement address “A World Split Apart,” where he speaks about a “decline of courage” in the West, can be sources of inspiration for those who care about the restoration of the freedom pillar in America. And if we care about contributing to building a good society, authentic humility is also important. It will, among other things, make it possible to apply a wise Niebuhrian principle: “Seek the truth in our opponents’ error, and the error in our own truth.”
Even those of us who dislike the language and attitude of “culture wars” will have to engage in the battle of ideas if the freedom pillar is to be restored in America. It will require confronting those views that want to unduly restrict freedom as well as patience with those who find the burden of responsibility that the gift of freedom brings too heavy to bear. Reading in the Old Testament the story of God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt or observing the situation in Slovakia after the collapse of Communism confirms that Alexis de Tocqueville may have been unto something when he wrote in Democracy in America, “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.” Historically, the United States has learned this art better than most, which gives additional hope that this country will remain free at the end of this century.
In our quest to create a “good society,” we should never lose sight of the fact that this ideal cannot be achieved completely and any human attempt to create a perfect society will ultimately lead to bitter disillusionment and human suffering. Fallen human beings cannot build pristine pillars of freedom, peace, and justice and need to realize their limits. Human history and the events of the twentieth century of the country in which I was born and raised are a memento to the fact that the path to earthly paradise is always covered in blood. Utopian visions must be avoided, yet we must strive to build a society that is at least a little more free, peaceful, and just than our own.
During the Cold War, I heard a lot about peace and justice from our Communist leaders. Their seemingly noble vision was a “classless society,” and one of their Marxist slogans was, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” We all know how it ended. I was there to witness it. In the United States, by contrast, President Ronald Reagan reminded his fellow citizens that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” The previous generations defended freedom, and we inherited it. Now it’s our turn to defend it and hand it to our children and grandchildren.
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