“The crucial feature of our troubled world is its tragic division.”
That is the opening statement of Elton Trueblood’s book titled Declaration of Freedom, and those words are just as true now as they were sixty some odd years ago when he first penned them. If there is anything that this past year has made abundantly clear it is that our nation is tragically divided along lines of race, economics, political affiliation, and a host of other issues.
We have seen the animosity of Bernie vs. Hillary, Hillary vs. Trump, and Trump vs. pretty much everyone else play out over the past year or more in the press as the Presidential election raged. We have seen the divide between the police and communities of color personified by the Black Lives Matter movement, which quickly devolved into an all out anti-cop hate group. The Occupy movement has stood against the wealthy. The Oregon Occupiers (completely separate movement) stood against the Federal Government and the Bureau of Land Management, the conservative version of the anti-government movement.
In many respects the year 2016 was the year where people became defined more by what they stood against rather than what they stood for in the realm of politics and economics especially. By buying into the “us against them” paradigm, the liberty movement (I refuse to identify with the label “conservative” or “republican” any longer as neither has any real meaning anymore) has in some respects fallen victim to this kind of identity by antagonism that has become the new norm in American socioeconomic and political discourse. And by doing so we have begun to lose the moral high ground along with the momentum and drive that is needed to keep pushing for real, meaningful reform.
Enter a small obscure book written by a little known philosopher and theologian smack dab in the middle of the last century.
Elton Trueblood’s book Declaration of Freedom is one that I crossed paths with by complete coincidence, or perhaps at the hands of divine providence. My church was having a book sale to make room in the old library for new additions, and I found this small book lying on a table with an unadorned khaki cover. The title caught my attention and I decided to pick it up and see what it was about. That was nearly five years ago and I have read the book numerous times since then. The fact that every single American is not intimately aware of this book and its themes is, in my opinion, a complete travesty and an indictment of the federal education system as a whole.
The book itself began as a series of lectures called the Colver Lectures given at Brown University in 1954. That fact alone is astonishing, and I doubt anything nearly as radically and fundamentally anti-leftist would make it through the doors at Brown these days. As the title suggests, Trueblood’s book is reminiscent of the Declaration of Independence in both theme and tone. It was written and delivered as a direct response and refutation of the concepts embodied by Communism and Marxism in general, the scourge of the world at that time and, arguably, today as well.
However, as anti-Communist and anti-Marxist as Trueblood’s book is, it is more than that. What makes Declaration of Freedom so important and so applicable to today’s climate is that it presents not just a refutation of Communism and Marxist principles/ideologies, but it also makes the positive claim for liberty and freedom as the only truly good life for mankind. As Trueblood puts it, “…in the struggle of ideas, the negative approach is never enough. The negative assault may be necessary, but it certainly is not sufficient” (pg 37). The problem with defining ourselves and our political philosophy as being against big government, or against the progressive agenda is that it is impossible to really inspire people only by standing against this or that.
As we saw with the TEA party movement, people can be and often are temporarily galvanized to stand together in opposition to some common enemy. In the case of the TEA party, that enemy was Obamacare (Affordable Care Act) and the rampant increase in taxes that came along with it and a host of other bad bills, laws, and regulations enacted by soon to be former administration. But that opposition was short-lived and the movement as a whole quickly began to unravel as many of the leaders and people who rode the wave of TEA party opposition into office began to waiver on their claimed principles and make deals with the power brokers already entrenched in DC. Only a handful of the people elected on their TEA party credentials have held true to the principles that movement embodied, and that list seems to get shorter by the day.
This is a problem with the inherent weakness of the negative approach and its inability to really drive a movement is part of what led Trueblood to write and deliver the lectures that were to become the Declaration of Freedom. The thesis of this work is the fundamental truth that “Freedom is so great a good that, when it is genuine, it is worth any price of which we can think” (45). However, this is not the superficial freedom of license embodied by the burn-the-system-to-the-ground anarchists of the Occupy and Anonymous movement. It is a deep and abiding freedom that is “…equidistant from dictatorship on the outside and from spiritual emptiness on the inside” (46). By Trueblood’s reasoning, and reasoning with which I agree, the only truly good life for mankind (all of mankind) is a life that is truly free from the controlling and enslaving principles of the all-powerful state as well as the enslaving depravity of complete license.
Elton Trueblood lays out his positive case for freedom by appealing to what he considers to be six essential positive freedoms:
- The Freedom to Learn (not to be confused with “free” tax-funded education)
- The Freedom to Debate
- The Freedom to Worship
- The Freedom to Work
- The Freedom to Live
- The Freedom to Serve
After delving deeply into each of these six positive freedoms, Trueblood goes on to discuss equality and the dignity of the individual, two concepts which go hand in hand. The equality found in Declaration of Freedom is not, however, the same kind of equality that is often tossed about in the news media today. He does not speak of forcing the wealthy to “pay their fair share” in order to make the “equal” with the rest of us, and neither does he talk of equal pay, equal property, or any other flavor of equality of outcome that has become the rallying cry for social justice warriors across the nation today. Instead, the equality that Trueblood points to is a deeper and more fundamental equality that is found as a result of considering the shared nature of humanity. In his words, “If equality is not a matter of particular powers, but of sharing in a common nature, there follows an equality of rights. These rights are not such that any government or regime can give them or take them away, but, instead, they are inherent in the situation. They are not granted, but are unalienable.” (76).
This is the kind of radical equality that our founders talked about when they stated with bold conviction in the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal, and they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights…” This is the true nature of equality upon which this nation was founded, and upon which we must once again stand. It is not an equality dependent upon the powers of the individual or the convictions of a particular political party, but an equality that is shared in all of us as a condition of our existence as individual people.
And this idea of equality of rights leads inevitably to the subject of Trueblood’s next to last chapter, the dignity of the individual, a concept which has become lost on most of the public today. According to Trueblood, politicians and those in power “..are tempted to treat people socially as segments of the group or of the profession which they represent” (98). This is a fallacy that both parties have become guilty of over the years, especially with regard to the opposing viewpoint or political position. People are no longer people, they are simply part of the opposition.
We have been labeled as uneducated, racist, fascist, ”cuckservative,” and deplorable by both the Left and the Right depending on where you stand on any given issue. But treating people this way has made us lose sight of the basic truth that “To treat a man as anything less than an individual is to dehumanize him, blurring the distinction which exists between the human and the subhuman creation or mechanical order” (98). By treating people as categories or sub-sets of the population we have lost sight of the fact that at the end of the day these are people, not numbers or cogs in a wheel, who are impacted directly by the policies and acts of government.
In speaking out against some of the early moves of the Trump administration, I have seen firsthand how quickly people who claim to be small government, liberty-minded “conservatives” can fall into this pattern of dehumanization. I have been labeled as a liberal progressive, a democrat, a “cuckservative” (or “cuck” for short), and un-American for my distrust and opposition to the incoming administration. This antagonistic and even openly hostile attitude by many on the political right, as well as the left, highlights a danger of governments with which Trueblood was intimately aware. “Government is something man needs, but government becomes evil and dangerous when the submission it requires is absolute and all-inclusive. We ought to have conscientious objectors and we ought to honor the dissenting conscience” (100).
As we stand on the edge of a new year and look back over the year that has just passed, it is clear that the divisions in this nation are deeper than they have been in a generation or more. We are, at the present, the very embodiment of “a house divided” and that state cannot long persist in a nation anymore than it can in a family or a household. One of the largest and most direct contributing factors to this state of division is the fact that we, as a people and as a nation, have lost sight of the fundamental and “self-evident” truths that once formed the bedrock and common ground upon which we stood. We have watched as the government under leadership from both the Progressive Left (Democrats) as well as the Progressive Right (Republicans) has moved further and further down the road of bigger government and more control, and finally we are beginning to stand up and push back.
But it is important that we in the liberty movement not lose sight of the fact that merely standing against the growth, over-reach, usurpation, and abuse of the federal government is not enough. Otherwise “while we struggle against the totalitarianism of the Left, we may forget the equal danger of the totalitarianism of the Right. The elementary yet tremendous fact is that the alternative to an evil may itself be evil” (38).
It is not enough to say we stand against the Progressive Left and their drive towards total government control from cradle to grave, and neither is it sufficient to say we stand against the Right and the tendency towards fascism and repression. We must instead make the case for what it is we do believe in—namely that the only truly good life for all of mankind is the free and liberated life.