Sunday, April 20, 2008

Liberty: The Power of Choice

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Quoted from the United States Declaration of Independence


I volunteered to pray for our nation at my church today. I did so without knowing ahead of time what I would say. I started by considering what defines a nation. In the case of the United States, a group of people wrote, signed, and issued a proclamation: The Declaration of Independence. A group of people can become a nation if they say so and they are able to get a significant group of folks to agree with them. There are other ways to form a nation, but this way is not unusual at all.

Once I had considered U.S. citizens as a nation, I thought about whether I agreed with the document that first proclaimed us to be one. This all had to happen pretty fast, I was supposed to start praying off the cuff in just a few moments. I confess I didn't listen much to the person who prayed for our city or the next one who prayed for the church. I was madly trying to remember what the Declaration of Independence actually said. Gradually I retrieved from memory a fairly accurate version of the sentence quoted above. That is surely a victory for those who sought to educate me in my tender years. It is a document I have had no occasion to read in recent decades, much less memorize. However, when I did recall it, I realized that it was pretty much a group of people declaring that they were a nation and were free because God made it so.

At first, it made it pretty easy to pray. After all, I was praying for a group of people who said they should be recognized as free because God gave them the right to do so and that conditions warranted such a forceful proclamation. Then I began to consider the irony. The author of the document was Thomas Jefferson. Yet it is also Thomas Jefferson's much less public writings, his letters, that are referred to by those who would like to limit our freedom to declare God's sovereignty in governmental forums, including public schools. Here is a quote most often referred to in those situations:

I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.

quoted from Jefferson's 1802 letter to a committee of the Danbury, Connecticut Baptist association

Of course, the part in quotes was written into the new nation's constitution. The wall is only mentioned in the letter. It would seem that many folks see that wall as something like the wall between East and West Berlin: A wall that was erected to prevent any communication between the communist and democratic parts of the city. Such folks want a wall between religion and government that allows no communication whatsoever. I see it as far more likely that the wall is like a low stone wall between farms. It identifies the proper area for each farmer's labors, but allows for free and easy communication between the farms.

Exactly such a wall is described in Robert Frost's poem Mending Wall . Read it and you will see that the merits of the wall are questioned. The farmer speaking in the poem repeats this phrase: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall". He questions its usefulness. However, I will not go so far. A demarcation is frequently important. The line or wall between church and state serves just such a purpose. However, just as the two farmers in the poem cooperate and chat while they repair the wall, so might church and state refine the demarcation between their respective provinces while communicating freely.

I will go a step further. Consider The inalienable right to liberty given to us by God, as described by Jefferson. Liberty is most readily defined as freedom. But freedom to do what? I say freedom to choose. We have been endowed by our Creator with an inalienable right to choose.

I cannot stop there. What good is the right to choose if there is no choice? In his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity , B.F. Skinner lays out his case that we do not have a choice: We do what we do because we have been conditioned to do so. Nurture.
Carl Sagan's Cosmos seems rather to argue that we do what we do because we evolved that way, where evolution is used in the sense that it is a process in which the whole universe is a progression of interrelated phenomena . Nature? Neither Skinner nor Sagan seems to leave much room for choice, also known as free will. I think I do not speak out of turn when I say that neither Skinner nor Sagan believed that we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights.

There are most certainly scientists who do believe that God granted us choice. Perhaps a scientific paper is not the best place to express that belief. But I cannot see that there is anything incompatible between Science and God. Neither can I see anything incompatible between Government and God. God can inform both Science and Government if we choose (oh that pesky word!) to let him do so.

God himself told us so. Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." John Chapter 8 TNIV

I opt for freedom. I hope you will also.
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