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The Changed Meaning of Liberty

Liberty has come far from its earlier meaning of a religious privilege or immunity. The meaning of liberty has changed because the culture has changed, so that it is a part of a vast panorama of new meanings.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony,
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Words change their meanings, and people who assume that older meanings still prevail invite deception thereby. It is part of current Marxist ideology to give a new content and an alien meaning to such familiar words as peace, freedom, republic, law, and so on.

New meanings precede revolutions, because the content of human hopes is altered dramatically, and the existing order finds that it cannot satisfy the new meanings. Before the French Revolution, the idea of liberty had taken on a new meaning, a very different one than had previously prevailed. As Frank E. Manuel, in The Prophets of Paris (1962), pointed out, "The very term liberty lost its medieval connotation of a privilege and became the right to bring into being what had not existed before" (p. 24). Liberty as a privilege had reference to a religious fact of immunity from civil controls and regulations. Thus, the ancient privilege of the church is its freedom from the state because it is Christ's personal domain and body and hence subject to no controls but those of His law word. Similarly, the privileges of the family exempted it from various controls. Each area of life had its privileges. We still use the word privilege in this older sense when we speak of "privileged communication." A privileged communication, as for example between a priest or pastor and a parishioner making a confession or seeking counsel, or between a doctor and a patient, or a lawyer and a client, is free from the controls or knowledge of the state or of other men and agencies. This freedom and immunity is, moreover, a religious fact. Thus, the older definition of liberty as a privilege and as a religious immunity rested firmly and clearly on a Christian culture. As long as the education and culture of the Western World was clearly Christian, liberty or freedom remained a Christian privilege.

This older meaning survived in the United States as recently as 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution declared, "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States." Unhappily, the Federal Government did not bar itself from any such infringement of the people's "privileges or immunities." The annotated edition of the Constitution published by the federal government says of this, "Unique among constitutional provisions, the privileges and immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment enjoys the distinction of having been rendered a nullity by a single decision of the Supreme Court issued within five years after its ratification" in the Slaughter-House Cases. The Court at that time began also to redefine the term "privileges and immunities" by declaring them to be, not religiously grounded, but owing their existence to the grace of the Federal Government. The state had begun to usurp the place of God!

It was the Enlightenment thinkers and the French "philosophes" who began the redefinition of liberty and its separation from the religious foundation which liberty as privilege had enjoyed. The French Revolution greatly advanced the new meaning. Its slogan was "Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality," and it soon became apparent that all three had new, ugly, and murderous meaning. Not without reason, as Madame Roland in 1793 went to the guillotine, that new symbol of freedom, she cried out, "O Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name." All French landlords had to paint on their walls, "unite, indivisibilite de la Republica, Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite ou la Mort!" Death came quickly for many, and for lesser reasons than failing to paint this slogan.

The Declaration of Rights of the French Revolution set forth the new meaning of freedom: "Liberty consists in being allowed to do whatever does not injure other people." If this definition sounds familiar, it is because it has been the premise behind the sexual revolution, homosexual arguments, abortion, and a variety of so-called "victimless" crimes.

Liberty has come far from its earlier meaning of a religious privilege or immunity. The meaning of liberty has changed because the culture has changed, so that it is a part of a vast panorama of new meanings. Liberty, as someone told me last year with all the solemnity of a prophet revealing new truth, means that I can do as I please as long as I do not hurt another person. It was soon obvious that we had differing definitions also of the meaning of "hurt." We also differed on what constitutes a "person." For him, it did include a Soviet KGB officer (as it must for me, since he is like myself a creature made in God's image), but not a Nazi, perhaps not a South African white, not a white racist or anti-Semite, not an unborn child, and possibly not some terminally ill elderly people. Because he was a humanist and I am a Christian, our meanings differed at every point. Each of us had a different principle of definition because we had different religions.

Karl Marx in L848, in the Communist Manifesto, gave a differing humanistic interpretation of liberty. For him, economic equality was the prior goal and virtue. His doctrine of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs," called for the satisfaction of all the economic needs before the hunger for liberty is satisfied. However, his plan meant also that a dictatorship defined every man's needs as well as the abilities and the productive responsibility of each man! In such a system, the needed food for a man as well as his needed freedom became a statist decision by elite planners.

When freedom lost its Christian definition, man became the new definer. Previously, God's law and sovereignty set boundaries on man's power. Man was not free from flagrant sins and breaches of liberty prior to the Enlightenment, but he knew that in all these things he was a sinner. Now, with humanism, he was a new god finding and expressing himself in his autonomous powers. The modern state, as the collective expression of these powers, was "liberated" to be humanity's new god walking on earth.

Artists began to give expression to this new world and life view. In France, Giullaume Appollinaire (1880-1918), an influential writer of the avant-garde, worked for total liberation from Christianity. Like the decadents and Andre Gide, he sought it in the gratuitous act, "l'acte gratuit," as the example of consistent human freedom. Since the free act, liberty, meant liberation from Christianity, only an inversion of morality could make men free. This meant the evil act, unmotivated evil, evil for its own sake. It meant "the liberating power of wickedness." (Roger Shattuck: The Banquet Years, p.304, 1955). The purity of the acts of liberation rested in the gratuitousness of their evil.

Within a generation or so after Apollinaire, Lindner, an American, wrote on Rebels Without a Cause, a study of juvenile criminals and their purposeless crimes. The assault, murder, and mutilation of innocent persons totally unacquainted with the criminal became increasingly commonplace after 1960. The new doctrine of liberty was being enacted on the streets.

The French Revolution had declared any act legitimate if it did not hurt or injure another person. The French revolutionary leaders quickly saw their enemies as non-persons and proceeded to kill them. Where God's definition of man is despised, soon man himself is despised and readily killed or victimized. Apollinaire in a novel, had put a prophecy into the mouth of one man: "On my arrival on earth, I found humanity on its last legs, devoted to fetishes, bigoted, barely capable of distinguishing good from evil - and I shall leave it intelligent, enlightened, regenerated, knowing there is neither good nor evil nor God nor devil nor spirit nor matter in distinct separateness" (Shattuck, p. 253).

When all values are denied except man, every man is free to define his own values and to act accordingly. The state, having greater power, has greater freedom to enforce its own values, and, as a result, the new freedom of humanism ends up in history's most malevolent tyranny and slavery. The new liberty is the old slavery writ large.

The modern world is far removed from the older world of liberty as a religious privilege which required responsibility and accountability to God. Sinning now passes as the new freedom, and the more perverted the sin the higher ostensibly the manifestation of liberty.

The saddest aspect of all this is the failure of so many churchmen and conservatives to see that, when politicians make promises using the old language of privilege and immunity, they have in mind the newer and revolutionary meanings. William Blake, himself a revolutionary, called attention to the fact that he and his opponents, reading the same thing, read differently: one read black where the other read white. Their presuppositions differed, and hence their reading.

The presupposition of the humanistic doctrine of liberty are anti-God and anti-man. For humanism, the great evil is deprivation. Man is seen as entitled to the fullest liberty to express himself, to gratify himself and to reach true personhood in self-expression.

An old hymn, once popular, celebrates Christ as King of all creation, and of all things therein. The last two verses read:

"The government of earth and seas
Upon his shoulders shall be laid:
His wide dominions shall increase,
And honours to His name be paid.
Jesus, the holy child, shall sit,
High on His father David's throne;-
Shall crush his foes beneath His feet,
And reign to ages yet unknown."

When Christians ceased to work in terms of this assured victory, the humanists began to do so. In terms of their plan, it is Christ and his people who are to be crushed beneath the feet of history and humanistic man. Their current power witnesses to the church's default. Wars are not won when men refuse to fight, nor can armies move against an enemy they refuse to recognize exists! Now that the long sleep of the church is ending, the battle begins.

The decline of true Christian liberty began when the enlightenment ideas of natural religion infiltrated the church and replaced the Biblical doctrine with the new ideas of "natural liberty." Previously, theology had, like Thomas Boston in his study of man's Fourfold State, distinguished between man's moral abilities in the state of innocence, the state of depravity, the state of grace, and the eternal state. Our Lord, in John 8:33-36, makes clear that true freedom comes from Him alone; it is an act of sovereign, saving grace. it gives us powers and immunities, and it restores us to our calling to exercise dominion and to subdue the earth (Matt. 28:18-20). Our freedom is a privilege and an immunity.

God's act of creation and His providential government establish Him as Sovereign or Lord. His law sets boundaries on man's will and thus gives us privileges and immunities which men and civil governments are forbidden to violate.

At one time, men spoke of their freedom as "ancient privileges and immunities." What was urgently needed was the development of this premise. The concept of sphere laws was early set forth in the church's struggle for freedom from the state. The Puritans, with their affirmation of covenanted spheres of life, advanced this doctrine. Abraham Kuyper, who admired the Puritans, formulated this concept philosophically and theologically.

On this foundation, the Christian community must revive the doctrine of liberty as a religious privilege and immunity. The claims of the state to be the source of freedom are false and evil. The American patriotic song is clearer on the issue when it hymns God as the "Author of Liberty." Those words are no longer sung in most public schools. Both God and liberty are now denied by the humanists. For this bit of honesty, we can thank them, as we work to undo their legacy of slavery. (August, 1984)

(Taken from Roots of Reconstruction, p. 241; Chalcedon Position Paper No. 53)

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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