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Guest op-ed: ‘Freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’

By Don Jarvis - | Jun 26, 2021

Every summer, Independence Day celebrations such as our Freedom Festival remind us about our liberties.

At a recent prayer breakfast in Provo, a young woman named Mykia Anderson spoke about the crucial importance of religious freedom, and former Geneva Steel CEO Joseph Cannon attributed our nation’s founding and freedoms to Providence.

Hearing those two speeches, I recalled that many thinkers have identified two main aspects of liberty: “freedom from” and “freedom to.” Both are important.

“Freedom from” refers to liberty from restraints and includes most of the cherished political rights enumerated in the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. They provide us freedom from a state religion, freedom from government press censorship and freedom from unreasonable government searches, among other important liberties.

“Freedom from” — what the government cannot do to us — seems to be the main subject around July 4. We celebrate our independence, our military and police who protect us, and refugees who have escaped foreign oppression. “Freedom from” is precious.

“Freedom to” is equally important and refers to how we can use our liberties. For instance, if we have political freedom, what do we do with it? If no autocrat can decree what our government policies should be, are we responsibly selecting our own priorities, searching for reliable news, investigating candidates and voting for the best ones? “Freedom to” includes the effort needed to make democracy work.

After a visit to America, author/philosopher Viktor Frankl wrote, “Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.”

The importance of responsibility as the other half of freedom is illustrated by an incident when I was in Moscow doing church work in 1996. Russians were trying to find their own way after years of Soviet government restrictions.

On one hot summer day, my burly Russian driver was wending our way through Moscow traffic while eating a banana. After finishing it, he flung the peel out the window onto a big intersection and triumphantly pronounced one of his few English words: “Freedom.”

I was disappointed, tempted to quote Viktor Frankl but managed only to mumble something about responsibility for city cleanliness. It fell on deaf ears, and I worried about Russia’s future if many others thought like my driver.

Our Constitution is often quoted by its liberty-loving defenders, but its purpose “to promote the general welfare” is less often referenced. Maybe that is because we have good agreement on the importance of civil liberties but less agreement on how exactly to “promote the general welfare.” That requires a great deal of discussion and reaching across political divides.

Such crucial conversations could be facilitated by simple acts of service and friendship.

In my church congregation are two unusual friends. One is a politically conservative brother we will call Jim and the other is an equally liberal sister we will call Lucile. Jim has been assigned with a companion for years as Lucile’s “ministering brother” and has faithfully built a warm relationship by visiting and serving despite their enormous political differences. He has used his “freedom to” in building a service bridge over the troubled waters of their differing political views. Lucile says he is the best possible “ministering brother” and a good friend.

Jim and Lucile remind me of Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who could not have been more different politically but who also exercised their “freedom to” build a friendship bridge over the troubled waters of their enormous political differences. Their families spent New Year’s Eve together, and a famous photo shows the two of them on vacation riding an elephant.

These two examples show the value of exercising “freedom to” in positive ways to build warm relationships.

In his classic book “Escape from Freedom,” Eric Fromm noted that when people lack such good relationships, they often become fearful and susceptible to forceful leaders who promise to protect and unify them. He and other historians believe this is what led to the rise of fascism in the 1930s and the calamity of WWII.

Ultimately, our “freedom from” is a necessary but insufficient right and must be accompanied by using “freedom to” in building relationships of trust and cooperation to solve problems and “promote the general welfare.”

In our country, riven by political differences that threaten to render it dysfunctional, what could be more important to remember on Independence Day?

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