What Freedom Is

Every so often I read the oddest comments. Some people are convinced that there has been an erosion of freedom in the United States. Desmond Tutu is recorded in a Newsweek web interview (this was about seven years ago now), of making the following statement: “I was teaching in Jacksonville, Fla., [during the election campaign in 2004] and I was shocked, because I had naively believed all these many years that Americans genuinely believed in freedom of speech. [But I] discovered there that when you made an utterance that was remotely contrary to what the White House was saying, then they attacked you. For a South African the déjà vu was frightening. They behaved exactly the same way that used to happen here [during apartheid]—vilifying those who are putting forward a slightly different view.”

One can find numerous commentators on TV and in the newspapers making the same sorts of charges today on both the left and the right. I generally notice the left screaming when someone on the right is in power and the right screaming when someone on the left is in power. I have yet to see any such screamers disappearing, as people used to in Nazi Germany, the old Soviet Union or today in certain less civilized parts of the Moslem world.

Meanwhile, I have heard statements, particularly during Christmas seasons, along these lines: “Christianity is under attack on the political, educational and media front.” So said one John Newby with NewsWithViews, an online site, way back on December 26, 2004. It is not uncommon during the holiday seasons to hear report after report by religious commentators complaining about negative portrayals of Christians and Christianity in the media, and decrying the work of the ACLU to get Nativity scenes off of public property, and the like. A search on the web will find various sites devoted to “fighting back” and shouting about how religious freedom is under attack. With the holidays fast approaching, I’m steeling myself for the same old complaints appearing all over again. They’ve become the new tinsel.

Frankly, people who say such things strike me as being wildly out of touch with reality.

If Tutu’s rights had actually been infringed, then that would mean he was arrested, his writings burned, and he had disappeared into a jail cell. After all, that is what happened to him in South Africa during Apartheid. Frankly, I don’t think that’s quite what he faced in Jacksonville. He seems instead to be simply upset that someone disagreed with him and expressed that disagreement and that somehow his freedom has been infringed as a consequence of that. He should know better than that. Freedom of speech, last time I checked, does not mean protection from having our speech criticized by those who disagree with us. If he was really being oppressed, I think he would not be allowed to give an interview in Newsweek, nor would we have been able to read his complaint.

Likewise, if Christianity were actually under attack in this country, that would mean I wouldn’t find Bibles and religious books weighing down the shelves in the local library, Walmart and Barnes and Noble. It would mean that the Christmas wrapping, cards, and trees would not be available any longer. It would mean that the churches that one finds every few blocks would have been converted to museums of atheism and I would have to fear arrest if I muttered “God bless you” when someone sneezed.

What Tutu seems bothered by, and what some Christians seem bothered by, is that there are people who actually dare to disagree with them. Or that someone made fun of them. Or that someone said a harsh word. Or that someone argued against their political or religious point of view. Those who are bothered by public criticism of their words need to grow thicker skins and realize that they are not gods giving pronouncements from Mt. Olympus.

To me, such public arguing sounds remarkably like freedom at work. If I hear someone say something that I don’t like or disagree with, I can speak up and tell them they are a bozo. If I don’t like what someone writes, I can write against them. I can create a blog, I can pass out flyers, I can write a book or letters to the editor. I can create a website and shout at the world. And the American government will never intervene. If people are speaking in public, I can heckle them. That might be rude, but hey, rudeness is part of life. I think there’s a rather long tradition of heckling in this country.

As long as folks are complaining about their loss of freedom on the internet, talk radio, newspapers and the like, and no police are hauling them off and beating them with hoses, then I’d say their public complaints are an obvious refutation of their fears. I’ve yet to see any government officials limiting what my pastor can preach. I’ve gotten no threats from the government for any book or article I’ve ever written. If you’re complaining and getting away with it, then it seems to me that you’re still free and you probably don’t really know what it is to have your freedoms restricted.

The story is told of Calvin Coolege that one night as he was sitting at the dinner table, his young son called him a name. Calvin just sat quietly, a thoughtful look on his face. His wife glared at her husband in shock. “Aren’t you going to do something about that?!”

“Well,” said Calvin. “If he’s speaking to me as his father, then I should probably spank him. But if he’s speaking to me as the President of the United States, he’s got a constitutionally protected right to call me anything he wants.” Since it is improbable that the people of Jacksonville are Desmond Tutu’s children, I think they can call him anything they want.

Freedom is a wonderful thing. But I think that some people have forgotten or fail to notice that they are free, and that they are surrounded by a bunch of other people who are free, too, who might freely take issue with what they say or think or do. That’s kind of the nature of freedom. It means everyone is free, not just me.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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