The Reverend Mr. Williams is Pastor Emeritus of The Old Stone Church, Rockton, Illinois.
The clergymen of America were a major fountainhead of freedom prior to the Declaration of Independence. Retention of freedom in the land may well depend upon what clergymen say in our time.
There is a fatalistic belief that freedom depends upon the kind of government under which a person lives. If one happens to live in a land where the privileges of freedom are denied, his only hope is to migrate—if he can—to another country. This belief takes for granted that freedom is the gift of the state, that freedom or the lack of it is a consequence of the policy of government. The assumption is that freedom is entirely a matter of the law, or the will of the ruler, as the case may be.
When any people believe that freedom is merely a privilege which may be bestowed or withdrawn at will by their rulers, they are in the gravest danger, for the history of nations shows that once a power is gained by the state, it is not willingly relinquished. Whether it is clear or not to the masses, it is really the people themselves who are finally responsible for the conditions under which they live.
It is easy to demonstrate this when we consider our own early history. No one questions that our Constitution was framed and our federal government formed by dedicated men who were motivated by high ideals which had deep religious foundations. They believed that men were "endowed by their Creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," and they admitted that man’s law must be in conformity with "the laws of nature and nature’s God."
In this discussion our purpose is to emphasize that without lofty idealism, such as a commanding faith in religion, it is impossible for a people to achieve freedom, or to maintain it once it is achieved.
Freedom Is Within Us
Freedom is not something the government gives to the people; rather, it is what "we the people" give to ourselves in the kind of government we establish or tolerate—"the government deriving its powers from the consent of the governed." If "we the people" have no commanding idealism, no convictions worthy the name, nothing to give, no protests to make, then the government is free to usurp all power and privilege to itself. Such a statement is easy to make, but would the people of East Germany, for example, agree that they are governed by a system of their own making? Would we Americans agree that the growing menace of the income tax is something we have wished upon ourselves? Any attempt to answer such questions involves a sober examination of the basic foundation of human freedom. Present evils in any country cannot be separated from the blunders, the crimes, the shortsightedness of the past. The sins of the fathers remain long after to punish their children. It behooves us then to do some sober soul-searching. As never before in human history we need to understand what freedom is and where it comes from.
Freedom is that condition under which people have the right of uncoerced choice. So long as we are bound by conditions which invalidate choice—whatever those conditions may be—we are enslaved by them and to that extent dehumanized. This does not mean, however, that freedom has no built-in restraints. True freedom is obligation as well as privilege. When the yoke of bondage is taken from man’s neck, the cross of responsibility is placed on his shoulder.
Still there is a persistent temptation to regard freedom as escape from bother, the privilege to live at ease and in luxury without being interfered with. This conception is one which idealism must challenge. No one can guard the fortress of his own soul without having strong convictions with which to challenge the evils that seek to destroy him. Goethe says, "He only earns his freedom and existence who daily conquers them anew." (Faust, V, 6) And Lord Byron responds, "I loathe… the mortal made of such quicksilver clay that in his breast no permanent foundation can be laid." (Don Juan, II, 209)
We have ruthless enemies who scoff at our sacred ideas as foolish weaknesses and delight to throw our most cherished values into their withering fires of hate and deception. Once we lose our belief in the sanctity of the individual and in the truth of our ideas, we become easy prey to a godless ideology that promises to destroy us. What, then, are these ideals, what is this "religion" which holds the secret of our protection?
Free To Choose
The primary promise of religion is salvation; and when religion is on the shelf, salvation is in the balance. To some, "salvation" may mean personal redemption or the promise of life after death. But what we are talking about here is world salvation, the salvation of the human race, the salvation of America. For if what America stands for is lost, is it possible that the rest of the world can be saved?
We speak of that saving force as "religion." If that word is wisely used in this connection we must inquire what it is. Religion is man living in harmony with himself, with his highest self. And no one can live in harmony with himself without being in harmony with his Creator. No man created himself or fabricated his own mind. He was created, without being consulted; and he was created for a purpose, whether he knows it or not. Each person has two potentials: God grants to each of us the right to be ourself, at the same time being His invention and His instrument. Man had no choice about being created, but he does have a choice about being God’s agent. The purpose of creation was to provide us an opportunity to exercise free will, in the divine hope that we would choose wisely and by the merit of that choice prove ourselves worthy of fellowship with our Creator.
Probably the most audacious experiment in creation was man’s endowment with this freedom of choice. No other creature on earth has such freedom. Everything else in the universe, animate or inanimate, follows a pattern to which it is bound and from which it cannot escape. Only man is free to control himself or run uncontrolled, to pray or to curse, to become a saint or to be a sinner. As we regard ourselves in this light, the conviction dawns that God in us is aiming at the production of superior beings, creatures of such high order that we may be both worthy and capable of cooperation with God in the unfinished work of creation. "For creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for creation was subjected to futility" yet "will be set free from its bondage to decay…" (Romans 8:19-21)
A Mountaintop of Importance
Once we are seized by the conviction that we are created for so exalted a purpose that it beggars description, we are immediately lifted to a mountaintop of importance. Such belief gives man an unshakable dignity and the conviction that nothing, except his own self, can prevent his achieving a God-given greatness. Every person in existence has such a destiny, whether he is aware of it or not. But any one of us may miss the goal of God’s intention by refusing to go in the direction of that goal. And the same thing is true of entire nations. Human history is crowded with bloody hands and scarlet robes, yet God never compels men to obey.
Consciousness of God is the highest achievement in human experience, and is, I firmly believe, the supreme goal of human life. This is true religion. It is not creed or dogma or churchism. It is a mental-spiritual experience of the highest order.
Irreligion, on the other hand, is habitual denial of God in thought and behavior, and this is also to reject man. Far too many people in this distressed world live as if they had no relation whatever to their Creator, and so fail to recognize the meaning and reason of their own existence. The tragic result of such failure is the inevitable loss of those ideals which are the necessary foundation of a triumphant life.
This is a lofty ideal which may appear exceedingly difficult to apply in a practical world. If we do believe that human freedom is God-endowed and cannot be violated without disaster, how are we to behave in the face of a creeping socialistic paralysis? We are confronted with a desperate conflict between our ideals and practical conditions. We believe human rights are God-given, yet are forced to accept state regulations as citizens. We do not believe in the increasingly huge federal spending—the everlasting filling the public hog trough with free-for-all—yet are obliged to pay our taxes, nevertheless. So we lose our individuality, our personal freedom, by being obliged to conform to state regulations. We need to have it thundered home to us by every means available that all centralized authorities, from the federal government to the labor unions, are concerned with limiting individual liberty, not with promoting it.
A Serious Problem
We have one national problem which illustrates this conflict and one for which there seems to be no solution, a problem which is seldom mentioned and scarcely thought about. It is the condition which has developed in our educational system which prohibits the teaching of religion in public schools. This prohibition has come about for two well-known reasons.
In the first place the Constitution forbids the government to establish religion and recognizes the right of the people to worship as they please. This is all to the good, and no one in his right mind would advocate that it be changed.
But the second reason is very bad, and the sooner it can be changed the better it will be for the welfare of the whole world. I refer to the sectarianism in organized Christianity which has split God’s people into unreasonable, and I say unchristian, factions. The result is that public education has been obliged to become entirely secular from beginning to end.
The tragedy is that ideology which has the power to save, best expressed in the Christian religion, is ignored in the education of our children. Because it is ignored, Christian idealism appears to them unnecessary. Being out of bounds in the system, religion becomes out of bounds in the attitude of both teachers and students. If religion is the foundation of freedom, as repeatedly claimed, the practice which ignores religion is a practice which will eventually destroy freedom. Witness atheistic Russia where a man who dared to speak as I am speaking would be silenced before he could be heard. We have not yet gone that far but when we refuse to allow religion to be taught to our youth, we are preparing an attitude of mind opposed to religion and favorable to materialism, secularism, and outright disregard for righteousness. An alarming evidence of this growing attitude is the epidemic of juvenile delinquency, the major crime wave among teenagers. Many of our young people appear to have little or no regard for the rights of others or respect for truth and morals, and are plunging headlong down the dismal road to dissipation and lawlessness. Why? Because of the failure of parents and schools and churches!
Neither modern youth nor their parents before them were trained in public schools to evaluate the loftiest ideals ever given to man. Both teenagers and their parents have been schooled in secular subjects and coached in materialistic values but left to themselves in what amounts to a wilderness of spiritual taboo. If the churches claim to take over the spiritual education of our people, the public is unimpressed, seeing that the church is divided against itself and has not enough spirituality to mend its own ugly schism. If people generally, including juveniles, develop a commanding ideology, they must do it despite these conflicting conditions, and they must do it pretty much by their own initiative.
This leads us to the current criticism that America, excelling in science and industry, has become materialistic. People are so hungry for money that it seems to make little or no difference how they get it. Nothing really matters if it does not "pay off." Science, engineering, production, transportation, machinery, material, stuff—these are the measure of modern life, while our religion, art, music, poetry have become more and more empty, if not nonexistent. We rush here and there in feverish hurry and when we get there, we have a baffling sense of not having arrived anywhere. We seek entertainment, pleasures, comfortableness, pursuing a fictitious pot of gold without ever seeing a rainbow. Our lives are surfeited with indulgences while achieving little satisfaction. How many people do you know who have the ability to "rejoice and be exceedingly glad"?
However fanciful our argument, the fact is that every philosophy or religion must have a practical application. Society is established and sustained in and by economics. Property rights are fundamental to freedom, just as life is impossible without "stuff." Materials are necessary to life, but are they so vital that they must be guaranteed by the state? The answer to this question is the master key, which is the deep, the passionate appreciation of the importance and the sanctity of the individual.
Religious ideals are addressed to persons. "Thou shalt… Thou shalt not… Blessed art thou… Do this and thou shalt live… Love thy neighbor as thyself… THOU!" These lofty conceptions have nothing whatever to do with government. They are addressed to you. The government is your instrument, answerable to you. But do not forget, you are God’s instrument, answerable to Him.