Liberty and virtue in the Founders’ eyes

Editor: On questions of civil law in America today, should Christians, at the margin, prioritize liberty or virtue? Centennial Institute Fellow Kevin Miller, speaking at CCU on Aug. 28, counterposed Position A, putting liberty first, against Position B, putting virtue first, without himself taking sides. Fellow Greg Schaller participated in the discussion and then filed the following argument.

A Dissent from Kevin Miller’s Position A

Miller’s Position A correctly argues that humans, created in the image of God, are willful, reasoning, and ultimately determinant beings. God created us with unique abilities, distinct from every other being in creation, thus giving us dominion over the creation. There is no disagreement concerning the significance of human liberty. Our disagreement arises when primacy is given to liberty over all other aspects of God’s intention with his creation.

For while we are indeed free, that freedom is grounded and premised on the Creator and what He desires for and from His creation. Thus, we cannot simply focus on liberty. We must see that with our God-given liberty, there exists duty, and we cannot separate the two. Failure to realize and maintain this connection leaves man and his will as the sole agent to determine right and wrong and what one does with liberty. When man does this, he is removing God, suggesting that he alone is the source of his rights. As Christians, we know that such an elevation of man and devaluation of God is the greatest of sins. This was the original sin of Adam and Eve in the garden.

Just as we cannot disconnect the creator’s liberty from the creator, when we consider the liberties expressed in our Constitution, we cannot separate the premise on which they are grounded: the Declaration of Independence. The establishment of the 1787 Constitution, seeking to institute a “More Perfect Union” (improving on the original failed constitution: the Articles of Confederation) is based upon the theoretical tenets first laid down in the Declaration.

To separate the two is to insist that the liberties of the Bill of Rights and the limitations on government codified in the Constitution are right, simply because a super-majority approved of them by vote in 1787-8, thus making the “rightness” of these liberties ultimately based solely on the will of the people. To Jefferson and the founders, this was insufficient protection for fundamental liberty, only slightly more secure than the rights that were granted and later taken away by the English Kings and parliaments.

No, for Jefferson, the source of rights are and must be based on something greater, something more permanent and fundamental than the temporary will of the people. Rights are found in the Creator: Nature or Nature’s God. The right of revolution is based upon this truth. When a government fails to protect the rights of its citizenry, the people are just in their cause to seek a change and, if necessary, to overthrow the illegitimate regime.

Jefferson is explicit: government is not formed to give man rights (for it cannot repeat what God has already done); rather, government is formed so that these rights might be better secured and protected.

The limited powers of government are also based upon this principle. The citizenry grants their consent to be governed; thus ultimate power resides with the people, not those in power.

As we have shown, liberty is not the sole purpose of Creation and the Creator. So too, the liberties and limits on government power stated in our Constitution are not ends in and of themselves. The Creator is the source of one’s right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and there exist obligations to the creator in what we do with that liberty.

When we consider our liberties within this context, we lower the primacy of liberty and elevate the expectation of moral duty to our Creator. Liberty is not an end in and of itself, but rather a means to an end. Liberty is indeed important. As creatures created in the image of God, we can and do have freedom. The importance of liberty is not that we do as we please with it, following our heart’s desire. When our liberty is founded in the Creator, we should follow His heart’s desire.

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