“looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled;” (Hebrews 12:15).
In ours or any other society that values freedom, the ideas of personal freedom and corporate responsibility are always held in tension. How much freedom can one exercise before that exercise of freedom infringes upon what is best for the society as a whole? We see these debates going on right now in our nation in regard to gun control, where one group feels that the only way to protect the populace from violence is to limit the freedoms of those wanting to own firearms for personal protection, sport, or recreation. That battle will continue to rage, no doubt, regardless of what laws are passed or fail to pass in the short term.
While those of us who value the right of individuals to own a gun are concerned about the overreach of government and the revocation of our Second Amendment rights, the fact that there is a dialogue in the culture about the issue is a good thing. In fact, that is the whole point of democracy, to give a voice to all sides on any given issue and allow the people to govern themselves through the process of representative government. In fact, the Constitution was written in such a way so as to not be overly restrictive, so the States could determine some of the particulars themselves and the people could make decisions based on the guiding principles the founders provided.
Freedom requires responsibility. Self-government means governing ourselves first, which presupposes a personal, moral compass by which we choose good and refuse evil. If we cannot hold ourselves and our passions in check and put the good of society above selfish, personal interests, we cannot hope to maintain a civil society. And yet, we are seeing the breakdown of civility in our society right now. Part of this, of course, is because we have lost our grip on objective moral values. Right and wrong have been redefined to mean whatever we want it to mean to allow us to indulge in any lifestyle we choose, regardless of its moral or ethical ramifications. The right of the individual, in some cases, has completely usurped the common good. I have to admit, if someone had told me just ten years ago that the nation would be split over whether a man should be allowed to use a woman’s public restroom, I wouldn’t have believed it. It would have seemed beyond all reason, denying what is universally understood as decent and natural. And yet, that is where we have come as a society.
As the writer of Hebrews says, there is a contagious influence to sin. It does not just defile the individual, it can, and often does, defile many. We see this to be true even before the world began. When Satan chose to rebel against God, he did not bear the consequence alone. The Bible tells us that a third of the angels joined him in this rebellion and were cast out of heaven with him as a result (Revelation 12:3-9). We worry about the company our children keep because we know, as the scriptures teach, that “bad company corrupts good habits” (1 Corinthians 15:33). We can teach them good values, but the influence of just one friend can undermine all our hard work, causing them to reject the good and the true. The same is true with any society.
Many today wrongly put their trust in what is often called “the better angels of our nature,” presupposing man to be inherently good and believing that all he needs is the chance to prove himself and he will see the light and do the right thing, despite all evidence to the contrary. We forget that things once got so bad that God Himself regretted He had ever made man and rebooted the whole project with Noah and his family after bringing a judgment that wiped out every other living person. When someone called Jesus “good teacher,” He challenged them and saying, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God” (Matthew 19:17). In other words, only God is good, and if we take God out of our society, our nation, or our own hearts, we cease to be good in any real sense of the Word. Man, the Bible teaches, is a fallen being, and left to himself, he will seek to gratify his own interests at the expense of others at any cost. We can put up firewalls to contain man’s propensity to victimize his fellow man, but all it takes is the first person to breach that wall and a flood of others will follow, whether it’s pushing the boundaries of sexual propriety or finding loopholes to exploit weaknesses in the financial markets for one’s own profit.
It was Alexis de Tocqueville, who said after visiting the fledgling republic of America, that “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.” We cannot be good without God, for we are sinful men in a broken world. We will either choose to allow the wicked propensities of men to continue to influence the direction of our culture, running like a mad mob over the precipice of moral dissolution, or we will fall on our faces and cry out for mercies from the God of Heaven. Our Founders chose the latter and built a government based on freedom and personal responsibility, which requires a moral center found only in a biblically grounded faith. Tocqueville also said, “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” The freedoms we have can allow us to destroy ourselves or by them we can repair the moral damage we have done to our republic, but we cannot do this trusting in our own goodness.
It was after Benjamin Franklin called the delegates to prayer during the difficult and contentious days of the Constitutional Convention that the document by which our nation has been governed for 240 years was conceived. It will take that same humility before God to keep us a free people, for freedom requires the acknowledgment of a transcendent law that comes from God. For that law to truly govern us, it must not be merely written in our laws, but inscribed on our hearts through the transforming work of Christ. You don’t have to be a Christian to be an American. That’s the privilege of a free society. But the grace that enables the members of that society to value the interests of others above their own and to fight for their freedoms only comes from God.