Remembering Gettysburg: America Needs to be Moral to be Free
The words have been quoted by leaders around the world in numerous human rights movements. They are etched, not only in the memorial which bears the author’s name, but in our collective national conscience. It was not that long ago that American school children memorized that entire address.
In the Gettysburg Address, delivered 152 years ago yesterday, Abraham Lincoln reminded us that “our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty.” He used the image of human conception for a good reason. From the moment of conception, the child can only grow and develop. It cannot change into something else. America is what our founders made her. Lincoln asked then the question we must ask now: Whether “any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
In honoring those who died on the battlefields of a war which turned us against one another, he reminded us that the living must continue the “unfinished” work of freedom. He concluded the address with the resolution “that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
The Great Struggle
The meaning of the liberty in which we were conceived is being tested. There is an unfinished work of freedom entrusted to us. The great struggle of this hour is over the very meaning of liberty itself. Almost every concern we face is an attack on liberty.
Political philosophers like to speak of “ordered liberty” when they talk about the great American experiment that began with the Declaration of Independence. The word “ordered” tells us what kind of liberty we seek. The order is the order of Nature and Nature’s God. In other words, our exercise of liberty is to be directed toward what is true.
If we don’t direct our freedom toward what is true, we will lose our freedom. In A Declaration of Dependence, written in 1941, the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen wrote: “Whence comes the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Read the Declaration of Independence and there find the answer: ‘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.’”
Sheen continued, “Notice these words: The Creator has endowed men with rights and liberties; men got them from God! In other words, we are dependent on God, and that initial dependence is the foundation of our independence.”
Our age has been seduced by a counterfeit notion of liberty as the right to do whatever we want, rather than the right to choose to do what is right. This is not what the founding fathers thought. The birth certificate of this nation was called a Declaration of Independence because it declared our independence from an unjust civil ruler, not independence from a just (and merciful) God.
The God-given natural moral law undergirds the American experiment. That law is written on the human heart.
America’s Ordered Liberty
That is why our liberty as Americans is ordered liberty, It is not freedom for the sake of freedom but freedom oriented toward what is true and good. This ordering is meant to direct our decisions as a nation conceived in that liberty. In a 1798 address to the officers of the first brigade of the militia of Massachusetts, John Adams affirmed that “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
The American founders weren’t all of the same religious position. Yet they all embraced the existence of the moral law as a guide and guarantor of liberty. We write as two Christians from different traditions. We do not agree with one another on some major doctrinal positions and yet we also share a belief in the moral law our founders recognized. This is not a “religious” position. It is not a partisan position. It is a recognition of the truth of our existence.
The reason for the crisis we currently face was expressed by Alexander Solzhenitsyn upon receiving the Templeton prize in 1983: “Men Have Forgotten God.” Our choices not only change the world around us, they make us to be the kinds of persons we become. What we choose either humanizes us further or leads us, ultimately, into new forms of slavery.
So it is with our choices as a Nation conceived in liberty. Abraham Lincoln was well aware of the words of Thomas Jefferson when he looked out on the battlefield at Gettysburg on the day of that address. They are now etched into the Third panel of the Jefferson memorial: “the God who gave us life gave us liberty.” The sentence which followed cries out to us today: “Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?”
In remembering Abraham Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg, let us remember that our nation was conceived in liberty, but not the mere freedom to do what we wish. Our founders intended the new nation to live in an ordered liberty. America needs a new birth of freedom, but to have that we must find a new recognition of the moral law written in every human heart.