Michael Sean Winters has an interesting post praising Archbishop Chaput’s homily for the close of the Fortnight for Freedom. Archbishop Chaput’s homily gets to the heart of religious freedom, emphasizing that political freedom is never really an end in itself. Freedom, true freedom, is not freedom from. Rather, true freedom is always freedom for something. As Christians, we know that true freedom always leads to Christ, who is Truth, for the truth alone sets us free. When freedom serves some other master, it is not freedom at all, but slavish idolatry.
Here’s Winters quoting heavily from Chaput:
Finally, someone said, in as many words, the freedoms of the First Amendment, splendid though they be, have little in common with the freedom of the children of God which is the freedom that must most concern a believer. “And yet, the political and legal effort to defend religious liberty – as vital as it is – belongs to a much greater struggle to master and convert our own hearts, and to live for God completely, without alibis or self-delusion,” Chaput said. “The only question that finally matters is this one: Will we live wholeheartedly for Jesus Christ? If so, then we can be a source of freedom for the world. If not, nothing else will do.” Chaput preached on the Gospels, not the Federalist Papers.
Winters attempts to show how the American understanding of freedom, in particular the idea of freedom of the Founders, is deeply insufficient when compared to the idea of freedom articulated by Archbishop Chaput.
Winters contrasts this fuller understanding of freedom to that offered by Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore in his homily at the opening of the Fortnight. Archbishop Lori, according to Winters, “failed to note that the negative conception of freedom, a freedom from, at the heart of the First Amendment is premised upon an anthropology and a politics that is quite at odds with Catholic anthropology and Catholic political ideas.”
Winters finds the compatibility of these two ideas of freedom deeply problematic: “freedom from” is not “freedom for.” As he puts it, “Just because [the Founders] spoke of freedom and we [Catholics] speak of freedom does not mean that we are speaking the same language.” Here Winters may not realize it, but he has just outlined the foundation for a (small “c”) conservative understanding of politics in which these two concepts of freedom are not antagonistic. Rather, one serves the other.
Because the state is not God, it cannot be the means by which we acquire true freedom. The state is not the Truth, and the state cannot set us free, at least not in the fullest sense of freedom outlined by Archbishop Chaput. It is precisely because of this that the state must go to such great lengths to defend the narrower, less adequate freedom that Winters identifies with the Founders and Archbishop Lori.
It is precisely because the state is not God, precisely because the state is limited in its competence, that the state refrains from answering the question, “Freedom for what?” When the state refrains from answering that question, it is not denying that there is an answer, it is simply acknowledging that the answer is not to be found in the realm of politics. The state refuses to answer that question, not because it is unimportant, but precisely because the question is so important as to be unanswerable by the state.
So it is that the state defends freedom from coercion in religious matters in order that citizens may be free to answer for themselves the fundamental, far more important question, “Freedom for what?”
In Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II wrote of the profound human importance of this question:
It is by responding to the call of God contained in the being of things that man becomes aware of his transcendent dignity. Every individual must give this response, which constitutes the apex of his humanity, and no social mechanism or collective subject can substitute for it.
A state that attempts to answer that question for its citizens easily descends into theocracy. Likewise, a state that denies the importance of that question, or refuses to allow public space for the asking and answering of that question (and living out the answer), denies that there is any truth above itself to which it is bound. Such a state is well down the road to totalitarianism.
While the state cannot fulfill our higher understanding of freedom, it can do much to impede it. Thus it is precisely the state that defends citizens from coercion in religious matters that gives proper reverence and respect to the fuller purpose of human freedom.
Archbishop Lori alluded to just this connection in his homily, when he said, “Because we are created in love and for love, we are endowed by the Creator with inherent rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Where Winters sees conflict between Lori’s view and Chaput’s, there is, in fact, deep complementarity. Rather than having “little in common” with true freedom, as Winters suggests, the “freedom from” of which Archbishop Lori spoke, is an important good precisely because (and insofar as) it is in service to, and provides for, that freedom for Truth of which Archbishop Chaput spoke so eloquently.
One last point about the limits of politics. How we use our higher freedom, freedom for truth, depends greatly on culture. In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II linked the foundation of higher freedom to culture, for, as he put it, “At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God.” While we must defend our political freedom, freedom from, the primary means for guiding ourselves and our neighbors toward truth do not lie in the political realm. Thus, Archbishop Chaput’s point, “Will we live wholeheartedly for Jesus Christ? If so, then we can be a source of freedom for the world. If not, nothing else will do.”
It is commonplace to lament the state of our popular culture. It is a lament I share. But insofar as a culture that leads men to true freedom will also inform politics (not least by reminding Caesar that he is not God), those who would promote such a culture must always avoid reducing culture to politics. A culture that cares only for activism or political power – even power for good – is a culture that will soon find itself incapable of protecting or promoting true freedom. Such a culture will have become the very thing it ought to defend against: a slavish worshipper of idols.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. The views expressed here are his own.