Desire for Liberty in the 17th Century Code used by Roger Williams

Freedom

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…” Janis Joplin

If you were completely free to do whatever you wanted, what would do? And then what? If you were really and truly free, would you still want the things you think you want now? So then, what exactly constrains you? There are likely two broad possibilities: relationships (e.g. someone you care about, what others think, what God approves) or resources (e.g. money, a key to get out of whatever place you are locked into).

If you deny there is a God or higher authority, then what God approves may not matter to you. If you believe there is a God, then notice He put you here free to decide whether to follow His ways or not. People may want to constrain you, but God himself gave you, or put you here with, your freedom. Christians believe He did so all the while staying open to future relationship with you, no matter the past.

Desire for people relationships is not so clear-cut. People relationships are reciprocal, and socially sanctioned, lest there be unpleasant consequences. And consequences change over time: the view now may not the view when you started.

If resources seem the constraint, resources can change: with hard work, prudence, and through relationships (with other people or with prayer). But note also that many times resources that cause their own constraints. If you have something there is immediate work required not to lose it. If you have stuff, you require a place to keep it. Jesus chose to live without the encumbrances of earthly assets. Of course, He was reported to have the ability to slip away in a crowd, and to create food at will, that enabled such a choice.

We all want to be free. In 17th century Europe, people’s desire to live without persecution, believing what their hearts told them was true, drove people across oceans in flimsy boats. Many died, if not on the way then from disease when they arrived. And yet when they got here, they set up the same system they had at home at first; persecuting those with beliefs different from their own. Anyone not currently in power advocated toleration back then. But the Kings of Europe claimed all authority, authority even above the law. Once a person wiggled their way into power of any kind, their tune quickly changed. Arrivals in America were no different, and thus, in the end, no more free.

Roger Williams was the first to gain power and not change his tune. He did go through a period of being completely free, with nothing, in the wilderness, seeming to have lost everything. He used his freedom to create a society that included toleration at its core. He separated out the function of keeping civil peace and called that government and labeled all other matters as functions of conscience — a conscience that should not be persecuted out of its civil peace. In that, he created a “free” society. The only thing required was respect of other’s similar freedom of conscience. That respect he called toleration. Toleration is not approval, as it only comes into play when people disapprove.

Toleration also has not traditionally meant one person gets to use another’s resources against their will. In a secular world where people look to government as provider of last resort, government has taken over roles previously assigned to family, church, and charity. Toleration does not imply funding via government. If we remembered that, we would take care when funding from the government items that are controversial. We have an obligation to recognize our endowed freedom, to recognize liberty for all in equal measure.

The hardest issues for us in democratic America pit one person’s liberty against another:

Abortion

Many of us believe abortion pits a mother’s freedom and livelihood against an unfortunate, resourceless, but fully human life. In that unequal setting, it seems the responsibility of the society to protect the weaker — even the way Roger Williams defined the role of government.

Given the commonness of a different belief system however, American democratic society has not achieved much protection for the child (or potential child). Our laws allow more abortions under more circumstances than even those Europe.

The line in the sand for many becomes not to fund elective abortion with our own payments into the government, and the legal protection is called the Hyde amendment. It seems many Democrats do not understand that losing the Hyde amendment (as the most recent convention would advocated) would leave pro-life people involuntarily with blood on their hands. So long as they talk of their opponents as wanting to “overturn Roe vs. Wade” vs. wanting to retain the Hyde amendment protections, they fail to understand why so many feel obligated to vote pro-life when they may agree with many other portions of a platform or are repulsed by certain behaviors of pro-life people in power.

It may be true that many pro-lifers would wish to change where Roe vs. Wade drew the lines, but they shouldn’t be able to unless they have the strong majorities of the consciences of the citizens, enough to set law in congress or via constitutional amendment. However, no pro-life person has freedom of conscience if they are forced into what they believe is murder with their own money paid in the form of taxes. “Toleration” would draw a line in the sand at the Hyde amendment, even as people of pro-life consciences advocate for more. For now, that appears to mean voting Republican in national races unless the Democratic platform is changed.

Tolerate Intolerance?

It has become popular to say tolerance isn’t enough. Companies and political organizations, and even some churches, ask people to celebrate diversity and reject intolerance. The challenge is that one man’s intolerance is another man’s heartfelt conscience. The statement itself is a form of intolerance of ideas. Often there can be win-win solutions found if people want to find them. However, the line in the sand has to be drawn at “civil peace” if we are to respect the very tenet that made a free society stable. What disrupts a person’s civil peace is where Roger Williams drew the line. All people (including those perceived as intolerant or people we strongly disagree with) should have socially recognized what the underlying society defines as “civil rights”.

It is the ability to tolerate while requiring civil peace be kept that makes us different. It is why we must all be up in arms when we or our allies violate civil peace over speech with which they disagree.