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Defining The Terms “Life and Liberty” In An American Context


“Life” and “Liberty” are terms that have powerful and positive connotative value to us. We are “pro-life” and “pro-liberty.” Such emotionally-laden terms can be definitionally evasive, however, since they stir our passions as well as our reason. As we consider our expectations of the state and our role therein, it is important to be clear about our understanding of such terms.

“Life” has both a political and a religious definition. In the political arena, “life” is biologically defined; the state defends “life” by protecting people from acts and policies that would injure or take away their lives, biologically considered. The state may wage defensive war, for instance, to defend its citizens’ lives. The state establishes police forces to “protect and serve” our physical well-being, and the state regulates pollutants that could poison the air we breathe. But religiously, “life” has a fuller meaning, such as Paul’s usage when he says that an individual can be dead even while he lives (1 Tim. 5:6). Jesus recognized this distinction between mere biological life and the truest religious life when He cited Moses: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). Bread might very well sustain and promote our biological health, but our spiritual and religious life is sustained by the creative and redemptive word of God. No governmental power can promote or protect “life” in this full religious sense, since such life is the result of the Holy Spirit’s blessing on the means of grace.

The civil magistrate, whom Paul called in Romans 13 a terror to evil conduct, was the Roman emperor, whose laws and definition of evil were informed neither by the laws of Moses, nor by the teachings of Christ. Evil, in such a context, was and is public evil — crimes against others or their property. It was not “evil” in its full-blown ethical-religious sense, which would include unbelief, idolatry, blasphemy, covetousness, and so on. The Roman emperor showed no concerns for these realities, yet Paul still considered him “God’s servant for your good” (Rom. 13:4). The state defends “life” by protecting people from acts and policies that would take away their lives, biologically considered. In the civil arena, then, we expect the government to promote and protect biological life and to permit (but not necessarily to promote) spiritual life.

“Liberty,” similarly, has both a political and a religious definition. Religiously speaking, the truest liberty is freedom from sin, and such freedom can even be described, paradoxically, as its own kind of slavery: “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” (Rom. 6:19). Political freedom, on the other hand, is freedom to be fully human, to be fully responsible for oneself, and therefore to follow one’s conscience without interruption by the state, until or unless the exercise of one’s liberty injures the person, liberty, or property of others.

Political liberty, in other words, includes the political “right” to sin, provided that one’s sin does not harm others. My Baptist friends may consider it sinful, for instance, for me to baptize infants; politically, however, I am free, as a minister, to conduct the rite of baptism in a manner that conforms to my own conscientious study about the matter. It does no political harm to the child or the child’s parents; baptism does not injure anyone’s health, property, or liberty. I defend the political right of my Baptist brothers to conduct the rite as their consciences dictate, and they extend the same political liberty to me.

We do not promote liberty because everyone will exercise it well or wisely, nor as an end in itself. In Christian theology, liberty is promoted as a means to an end: works of obedience offered to God sincerely. No religious act that is done out of mere coercion pleases God; God wishes our obedience to be offered to Him freely, from hearts moved by His remarkable grace: “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). Paul was concerned that love come from right motives, that it be sincere and conscientious. Even when he dealt with the very real and practical issue of famine relief in the churches, he remained as concerned for the motivation as for the act itself: “Each one must give as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). If the giving is not “cheerful,” God does not love it. Christians, therefore, ought to be the most vocal defenders of political liberty, because such liberty is so consistent with our concern for religious sincerity.

We also promote liberty because of its cultural advantages. Every culture wishes to benefit from the talents, insights, and other contributions of the largest number of individuals. If we create a political climate that suppresses their gifts and contributions, then they either do not make them at all, or they make them elsewhere. Marie Curie was not permitted to pursue her interests in radioactivity in her native Poland, so she moved to Paris to conduct her important work there. Mstislav Rostropovich spent much of his cello career in exile from his native Russia, only returning in his latter years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Albert Einstein departed his native Germany in 1932 to continue his work in the United States. In a free culture, these individuals would not have needed to leave their native homes. In each of their respective cases, their native countries forfeited their contributions. Virginia Presbyterians understood this matter in the late eighteenth century, when, on October 24, 1776, Hanover Presbytery petitioned the Virginia Legislature for religious liberty, arguing in part: “We beg leave farther to represent that religious establishments are highly injurious to the temporal interests of a community.…such establishments greatly retard population, and consequently the progress of arts, sciences, and manufactories…” (Cited in Appendix D of Charles F. James, Documentary History of the Struggle for Religious Liberty in Virginia. Lynchburg, VA: J.P. Bell Company, 1900).

Liberty and the so-called “culture war”

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