Roger Koopman owns a small business in Bozeman, Montana.
“These are the times that try men’s souls”—immortal words scribbled by Thomas Paine on a scrap of paper by the dim light of a Revolutionary Army campfire. Those were indeed times of great despair, and many of the revolution’s “summer soldiers” had already deserted for home, convinced that their cause was lost. Yet in those darkest of days, men of great vision and faith stayed on, prompting Paine to continue, “it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.”
Freedom, to the men of 1776, was more than highly rated—it was second only to salvation itself, as God’s greatest gift. It was worth more than all the riches of earth, worth fighting for and dying for. Thus they pledged their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor. Most lost their fortunes, many lost their lives; but unlike the politicians of our modern day, none of them would lose his honor. We are a free nation today only because the people of that day were rooted in biblical faith and viewed liberty far more in spiritual than physical terms. They were willing to lose all their wealth and standing, but they would not compromise their freedom.
These, too, are times that try men’s souls, but the challenge is from within, not from without. We do not face a redcoated enemy with fixed bayonets; we do not face physical starvation or the elements of winter. Yet our souls are starving. Daniel Webster once wrote, “the Divine knowledge has ebbed out of us, and we do not know enough to be free.” Webster’s words are sadly more appropriate to our age than to his own. So removed are we from the ideals of liberty that we scarcely talk about them anymore.
In today’s world of politics and public policy, freedom is not looked upon as an end in itself. Instead, we define the “value” of freedom in physical terms, that is, in relation to the material benefits we derive from its presence—or its absence. Freedom has become little more than a means to a materialistic end. We cherish physical benefits where our Founding Fathers cherished freedom itself. One can only guess how long this trend will continue before we have lost both our benefits and our freedom. We are enslaving ourselves to our own appetites.
This “slavery” manifests itself in two fundamental ways: (1) We look upon government not as a protector but as a provider, as an instrument by which we can get something for nothing through “legal plunder” of our fellow man; and (2) we view government as the means by which we can exercise control over the activities of our fellow man for our own gratification or advancement.
Examples of the first of these two mindsets are seen in almost every political speech and legislative action on the state and federal level. Attend a committee hearing in your state capital sometime; the spectacle is often revolting. Everyone, it seems, is demanding something from government that he has not earned, courtesy of our taxes. The only thing people typically don’t demand is the freedom to produce these things for themselves, and the opportunity for self-reliance unencumbered by government.
A good example of the second phenomenon—the urge to dictate and control the lives of others—can be seen much closer to home, through the actions of interventionist local government. Almost overnight, city or county commissioners can transform a peaceful community into a place of hostile, warring factions. Zoning ordinances turn neighborhoods into battlegrounds and good will into bitterness. While it can be argued that local politicians often overstep the bounds of voter intent, it cannot be denied that many who vote for these professional meddlers do so because they find their “control” message appealing—they want local government to harass local citizens. They want to interfere with other people’s lives. Thus, the appearance of a business man’s sign or a neighbor’s picket fence becomes “all important” in the minds of many voters; their fellow man’s personal freedom is not important.
It is time to rekindle within each of us, in the words of George Washington, “that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” For the sake of conscience, we must resolve to honor and defend our neighbor’s freedom as our own—and to do so even if we don’t agree with the choices he makes. For the sake of conscience, we must resist every temptation to go to government for a subsidy or “freebie,” even if everyone else is doing it—especially if everyone else is doing it. We must, each one of us, individually strike that match of conscience in the darkness until our collective light makes America once again the beacon of freedom to all the world.