As Americans, it’s a word we are all familiar with. Even upon hearing that word, you might have visions of fireworks and bald eagles. Perhaps you thought of your favorite place to travel or your favorite people to spend time with. Or maybe you think of rights like the freedom of religion or freedom of speech.
In many ways, the pursuit and defense of freedom have defined what it means to be a citizen of the United States. Even for non-citizens or immigrants, freedom is the clarion call that has drawn so many to our country over the centuries. It is a gift that has allowed the United States to be one of the most prosperous countries in the history of the world.
But what is freedom, exactly? Sometimes, words like “freedom” or “love” can be used so often and in so many ways that we forget their original significance. And much like the word “love,” “freedom” can mean different things depending on who you ask.
This doesn’t make the concept of freedom nebulous and undefinable. Far from it. In fact, if we want society to flourish and be able to enjoy freedom, we must understand what freedom is, and that to be truly free, one must be able to pursue what is truly good.
Let’s unpack the definition of freedom from three angles: freedom “from,” freedom “to,” and freedom “for.”
Freedom ‘from’ and freedom ‘to’
The ideas of freedom “from” and freedom “to” represent two aspects of what people commonly ascribe to the definition of freedom.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, these ideas were popularized by political philosopher Isaiah Berlin in an essay titled “Two Concepts of Liberty.” These ideas were given the names negative liberty and positive liberty (also called negative freedom and positive freedom).
Negative liberty is the idea of having freedom “from” something. It is called “negative” liberty because it is characterized by an absence of “obstacles, barriers, or constraints.” In other words, you have negative liberty when there aren’t external factors (such as laws) restraining you from doing what you want to do.
Positive liberty, on the other hand, is the idea of having the freedom “to” something. It is called “positive” liberty because it is characterized by the presence of things like “control, self-mastery, self-determination, or self-realization.” Positive liberty, in short, is about being able to achieve your goals and desires, not merely being free from external restraints.
Let’s use an example to demonstrate the difference. If John wanted to travel from Michigan to Hawaii for vacation, he could go there so long as no one was actively preventing him from doing so. That absence of external interference is negative liberty. But if John were too poor to afford a plane ticket or if he were physically incapable of traveling due to sickness or disability, then he would be deprived of the positive liberty to fulfill his desire to travel.
These distinct definitions of freedom can have very different political implications. Here are a couple of examples:
- If you were protesting a law, negative liberty would say that the government can’t take away your microphone to prevent you from speaking in a public place. Positive liberty, on the other hand, would say that if you want to speak but can’t, the government should provide you with a microphone (or create other means) so that you can speak.
- With a good or service like health care, negative liberty would say that laws shouldn’t prevent you from buying or providing health-care services. But positive liberty would say that if you wanted health care and couldn’t afford it, then it should be provided to you.
Both conservatives and progressives normally favor a mixture of positive and negative freedoms. Conservatives tend to emphasize negative freedom (and thus favor smaller government) while progressives tend to emphasize positive freedom (and thus favor larger government).
The Constitution, by and large, is concerned with negative liberty and restraining the power of government. For example, the First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The phrase “Congress shall make no law” embodies the concept of negative freedom because it is concerned with being free from unjust government restrictions on speech, religion, etc.
Protecting these negative rights and freedoms is what concerns much of the work of Alliance Defending Freedom, where we seek to advance people’s God-given right to live and speak the truth, free from unlawful government interference.
Positive and negative freedoms are important concepts in discussing what freedom looks like practically in a political context. At the same time, they can miss the point of what the nature and purpose of freedom is. Thankfully, the Bible helps answer these questions, reminding us that true freedom is not primarily a freedom “from” external restraints or freedom “to” enact our own will in the world but a freedom “for” something greater than ourselves.
1 Peter 2:13-17 reads, “Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”
In this passage, the Apostle Peter instructs Christians about their duty to honor, respect, and submit to those human institutions such as the government that God has established. In addition, Peter emphasizes the moral duties and responsibilities of the government to “punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.”
Likewise, freedom also comes with moral duties and responsibilities. Peter says, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” This principle is also echoed by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5:13: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”
In other words, freedom is for a purpose greater than ourselves: to serve God and serve one another. True freedom is not doing whatever we feel like or being able to make any choice, right or wrong. True freedom is doing the good that we were created to do.
This is a countercultural notion of freedom; our culture tends to embrace more extreme definitions of positive freedom (emphasizing self-actualization) or negative freedom (emphasizing lack of restraints). But the presence of sin in this world and in our own hearts necessitates limitations on both positive freedom and negative freedom—positive freedom because not all our desires should be actualized, and negative freedom because people do evil things that need to be restrained by the government. This is why a greater vision of “freedom for” is necessary for our culture today.
Any student of history will know that freedom should not be taken for granted. Most nations throughout time have not had the degree of freedom that we enjoy today in the United States. But if our notion of freedom becomes decoupled from true goodness, then freedom will slip away in equal measure, causing unjust suffering (2 Peter 2:19).
This is why, in all our work, ADF seeks the good of our neighbor and all Americans, because when goodness flourishes, freedom flourishes.