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Religious Roots of Liberty
Mises Daily: Wednesday, August 26, 2009 by Rev. Edmund A. Opitz
Every variety of tyranny rests upon the belief that some persons have a right — or even a duty — to impose their wills upon other people. Tyranny may be fastened upon others by the mere whim of one man, such as a king or dictator under various names. Or tyranny may be imposed upon a minority "for their own good" by a democratically elected majority. But in any case, tyranny is always a denial — or a misunderstanding — of the mandates of an authority or law higher than man himself.
Liberty rests upon the belief that all proper authority for man's relationships with his fellow men comes from a source higher than man — from the Creator. Liberty decrees that all men — subject and ruler alike — are bound by this higher authority which is above and beyond man-made law; that each person has a relation to his Maker with which no other person, not even the ruler, has any right to interfere. In order to make these conceptions effective for liberty, they must be deeply ingrained in the fundamental values of a people. That is to say, they must be part of the popular religion. There was one people of antiquity for whom this was true, the people who gave us our Old Testament. It was among the ancient Israelites that the conviction took hold and emerged into practice that there was a God of righteousness whose judgments applied even to rulers.
All over the Middle East, patient researchers have turned up monuments and vainglorious inscriptions carved into rock or pressed into clay at the behest of proud kings. Except in Palestine! [This remind you of DC and Mount Rushmore?]
An authority states that there is not a single royal inscription from any of the Bible kings. The Prophets saw to that! No boastful king in ancient Israel would have presumed to leave an inscription dedicated to his own glory, much as he felt he deserved such.
Now, no people live together without conforming to a commonly accepted code, and without having recourse at times to law. The people of ancient Palestine lived under authority, not in a condition of anarchy. If the king was not the source of their law, there must have been another and higher source. There is no doubt as to what their authority was: they looked to God as the source of their law.
Nearly every man was learned in this law, and also deeply involved in the religious relation to God in which the law was rooted — and liberty was a precious by-product of these conditions. Establish these conditions — that is, widely held religious values in which God is regarded as the source of authority and justice, superior to any earthly power — and they provide a firm foundation for political liberty.
In these circumstances there is a continuous check to tyranny, should any such attempt to raise its head. Neglect these conditions, and liberty has no roots. It is like a cut flower which has no vitality in itself and does not last beyond the life it derived from the plant. The way is prepared for tyranny.
Collectivist regimes, in the nature of things, must be profoundly irreligious, even to the extent of pressing a corrupted religion into service to shore up tyranny. Genuine religious experience entails the recognition of an inviolable essence in men, the human soul. It inculcates a sense of the worth and dignity of the person and breeds resistance to efforts to submerge individuals in the mass.
Men whose personal experience convinces them that they are creatures of God will not become willing creatures of the state, nor attempt to make creatures of other men. For them, God is the Lord, whose service is perfect freedom; and Caesar is the ruler, whom to serve is bondage.
It was upon such a faith that this country was founded. Those who migrated to these shores in the early days did not always see the full implications of their beliefs, and sometimes acted contrary to them. But in the end those beliefs prevailed, and they are recognizable in American institutions.
An experiment based on those principles was launched on these shores less than two centuries ago. It was the result of a conscious effort to forge an instrumentality of government in conformity with the higher law, based on the widely held conviction that God is the author of liberty.
So long as men accepted the basic affirmations of religion — that there is a God of all people with whom each individual has a personal relationship — our liberties were basically secure. Whenever there was a breach in them, we possessed a principle by which we could discover and repair the breach. But when there ceases to be a constant recurrence to fundamental principles, our political freedom is placed in jeopardy. Political liberty is not self-sustained; it rests upon a religious base.
All men desire to be free, and the will to be free is perpetually renewed in each individual who uses his faculties and affirms his manhood. But the mere desire to be free has never saved any people who did not know and establish the things on which freedom depends — and these are the things of religion. The God-concept, when cherished in the values of a people, is the universal solvent of tyranny, for, as Job said, "He looseth the bond of kings" (Job 12:18).