‘Born Free,’ ‘Truly Free,’ and Other State of the Union Myths

Feb 8, 2019 by David Fowler

Official photo of Trump, Trump at the State of the Union address, and Bernie Sanders at a DC rally (Photo credit for Sanders photo: Lorie Shaull, 2016, https://www.flickr.com/photos/number7cloud/30924024642/, cc-by-sa 2.0)
President Trump went off his printed State of the Union speech Tuesday night and said, to Republican applause, “America was founded on liberty and independence and not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free and we will stay free.” Senator Bernie Sanders’ response proposed a different vision of liberty and freedom. Which one, if either, is true?

Senator Sanders’ Response

In response to “we are born free, and we will stay free,” Sen. Sanders tweeted, “People are not truly free when they can’t afford health care, prescription drugs, or a place to live. People are not free when they cannot retire with dignity or feed their families.”

Sanders’ vision of freedom is grounded in human right or entitlement, but unlike the “airy metaphysical notions . . . started by fanciful writers upon this subject”1 like Frenchman Jean Jacque Rousseau, Sanders gave specifics: health care, food, and housing.

Sanders, though, was building on Rousseau, who famously said, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”2

According to Rousseau and his disciple, Sanders, whether he is such consciously or subconsciously, society and its unjust social structures are the sources of man’s chains and the solution is to understand society as a freely entered into social compact or contract among all the citizens. (Sound like familiar civics?)

Sanders’ Compulsion-Is-the-New-Freedom Theory

What often goes unnoticed by most social contract advocates, Democrat and Republican alike, is the consequence of this theory.

Rousseau rightly noted, as would Sanders, that “each individual [may], as a man, have a particular will contrary to or different from the general will he has as a citizen.” So, “in order that the social pact may not be an empty formula,” the social contract “tacitly includes the commitment … that anyone who refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to so do by the entire body.”

While being compelled by the “entire body” to do that which one doesn’t want to do doesn’t sound like being “free,” Rousseau explains, “[T]his means . . . that he will be forced to be free” because it “protects him against all personal dependence.”

If forced to be free doesn’t sound quite right to you, then that’s a good thing. It’s just plain rubbish.

Is Trump’s ‘Born Free’ Theory Any Better?

While it is not my intent to pick on the President because of one ad-libbed statement about man being born free, it is worth looking at the worldview that counts it as a truism and greets it with great approbation. “Born free” may look great on a bumper sticker and make for a great lyric to a 1960s song sung by Andy Williams, but it’s not so good as a theory of man upon which to organize society. Rock band Steppenwolf took the “born free” cue to blare out this line: “Like a true nature child, we were born, born to be wild.”

That’s why one of the other fanciful writers on airy metaphysical notions, Thomas Hobbes, said “the life of man” in his natural state “is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."3 “During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe,” they live, he said, “in that condition called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man.”

But note: This “born free” theory—“diversity on steroids”—requires a “common power” to prevent chaos, which is where we’re headed with our penchant for a diversity that will not discriminate between the good and the bad. And that leads back to Sanders and his compulsion-for-the-love-of-the-greater-common-good theory of freedom.

The Only Theory of Freedom That Could Work

So, if Sanders’ and Trumps’ theories of freedom both lead to government compulsion in the end (and note that their theories aren’t “new”), then what theory could work?

I submit that there is one. It’s actually even older, but it was foolishly rejected because it didn’t promise enough freedom.

That “theory” says God created man and woman in God’s own image, gave them dominion over the earth, and on their heart He wrote His operating instructions. There was only one restriction—that they not eat of the fruit of one particular tree (Genesis 1:26–31; Romans 2; Jeremiah 31:33; Romans 2:14–15).

That tree, though beautiful and good for food, was, we might say, a sacramental reminder to them that their liberty was not absolute but was under God.

But what liberty it was! The fruit from all other trees in the garden were theirs to eat, the non-garden part of the creation was their “playground” to explore and develop for the glory of their Creator, whose joy was their greatest joy, and, when the day was done, they could retreat to the garden to enjoy fellowship with their Creator.

But they were deceived into thinking their Creator was not good because they could not “eat of every tree of the garden (Genesis 3:14). And they couldn’t. They were not absolutely free; they were not free of God.

So, they rebelled to pursue their own freedom, make up their own rules, and develop their own operating instructions. And ever since, humanity has been trying to come up with a better theory for obtaining the greatest human freedom possible without either chaos or compulsion.

The Gospel, in short, is the merciful and gracious means by which God is working to restore what was lost, to in time make all things new (Revelation 21:5; Isaiah 66:22).

Where the Theories Lead

If we’re honest with ourselves, in those nations where people have had the greatest freedom to live out that Gospel—the Dutch Netherlands, England, Scotland, and America—freedom developed over time, and this despite the many, and often grave, shortcomings of those who sought to live it out.

But, today, America sits as a nation that has rejected the Bible and the Gospel as its basis for freedom and liberty.

Sadly, all Christians, myself included, have at times provided the ready justification a non-Christian was looking for to set off in search of freedom and liberty apart from God by their moral failures and sometimes faulty application of biblical principles to the problems of their day.

That truly breaks my heart5 because the search for freedom apart from God will end, as it has since the beginning, in the loss of freedom and eventually death both for the individual and for any culture in which those individuals are the dominant force.

As my pastor frequently says, “God have mercy. Church have courage.”

  1. William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, The Second Book. Of the Rights of Things, Chapter 1: Of Property, in General.
  2. Jean Jacque Rousseau, On Social Contract or Principles of Political Right.
  3. Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan.
  4. The King James rendering quoted here is good because it is a more literal rendering of the question asked by Satan and parallels the expansive permission to eat from “every” tree of the garden but the one. It would have been too obvious an assassination on the goodness of God’s character to suggest to Adam and Eve that He had prohibited them from eating of “any tree” of the garden. But to suggest that God had withheld something from them, even if only one tree, was to put doubt in their minds as to the liberality of His goodness.
  5. The Christian who is only angry and not brokenhearted needs to read and study the writings of “weeping prophet” Jeremiah and repent of their Jonah heart. Sadly, that, too, has too often described me in the past.

David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. 

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