Modern democracy is the product of centuries of struggle. Thousands of brave men and women have laid down their lives in the cause of freedom. It is significant that it is just 100 years ago that one of America’s most notable martyrs to freedom of the press, Elijah Lovejoy, paid the supreme sacrifice in freedom’s march. Now we are facing a crisis, not only in America, but in every country of the world.
In rapid succession, nation after nation has repudiated the principles of democracy. It is said that not more than 25 percent of the world’s population have even a semblance of freedom and religious liberty. While dictators sway the nations, human liberties lie prostrate in the dust. Great Britain and the United States are among the very few nations in all the world in which freedom of conscience and democracy prevail, but evil forces are at work in these lands, threatening a flight of liberty and consequent struggle, suffering, and sacrifice as in other lands. Stanley Baldwin said: “The world has never been less safe for democracy than it is today.” The areas of liberty are rapidly shrinking. Political and religious elements are combining their forces for a great social, economic, and religious reconstruction of society, when individual freedom will be sacrificed for the benefit of the collective group. The days of democracy seem to be ending in the twilight of a sullen darkness that is rapidly enveloping our world.
Ten countries in Europe are now under the sway of dictators. Who knows how long it will be before strong men will arise even in Anglo-Saxon countries and set up additional dictatorships and steal the liberties of the people? The totalitarian state is the fashion of governments today. This is not new in the history of men. It is but a resurrection of the autocratic despotism of the pharaohs and the caesars.
Work of Two Centuries Undone
Sir Herbert Samuel, the leader of the Liberal Party in the British House of Commons, asks, “Did any one foresee in 1914 that 20 years later, in some of the greatest countries of the world, democracy would be overthrown? For two centuries political liberty has grown and spread; in two decades the advancement has been stopped and the movement reversed.” Think of it. The work of two centuries undone in two decades! This should constitute a challenge to every lover of liberty, to every exponent of human rights, to every soul who loves his God, to everyone who would safeguard the principles of justice, fairness, and equity, to rally to the defense of those principles, to lift the trailing standard of true freedom, and to unite in an effort to stem the tide that is sweeping civilization from its moorings and threatening the well-being of mankind everywhere.
We need to restudy the whole question of human government. What is the purpose of civil government? It exists solely for the protection of human rights in this world. To give rights is not within the province of any civil government. Rights are God-given, not state-given! The state cannot create primary rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Its work is to protect those rights for its citizens. These are the high principles and the foundation of the Constitution of the United States. We surely can thank God for the blessing of good government, but we should see that nothing comes in to rob us of that blessing.
Freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom for the individual constitute the triumvirate that has piloted America’s ship of state through a century and a half of revolution and reconstruction. The palladium of all civil, political, and religious rights is a free press. An enslaved press is doubly fatal. It not only takes away the true light, in which case we might stand still, but it sets up a false light and decoys us to our destruction. This is invariably the case with dictatorships. No criticism of the government is permitted. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press cease. The moment the dictatorship is in power, its opponents are eliminated by force as it crushes every movement and every individual it suspects. Having thus crushed all criticism of its actions and concealing from the people all knowledge of its failures, while trampling on the people’s liberties, it magnifies its own successes, “it presses into molds of its own, making the fluid opinions of the rising generation.” Schoolbooks are revised. Colleges, university, and churches are bludgeoned into line; and every organ of propaganda . . . is made to serve its purpose.
The greatest glory of a freeborn people is to transmit that freedom to their children. Americans need to beware lest the torch of liberty be extinguished by well-meaning, but dangerous, advocates of changes in the Constitution of their country. As an example, the National Reform Association voices in its official organ, the Christian Statesman, this anticonstitutional propaganda: “We need . . . to correct our most unfortunate attitude under the First Amendment, which restrains Congress from prohibiting the free exercise of religion.” Will America march backward to Puritanical tyranny through such measures as this?
William Gladstone, England’s octogenarian premier, declared: “The American Constitution is the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” This great nation must watch lest the priceless heritage of freedom be bartered for a mere mess of pottage. Be not deceived. The hands may be the hands of Esau, but the voice is the voice of Jacob. The two great principles that made the Constitution are civil and religious liberty. These two are twins—Siamese twins; neither can exist without the other.
Civil and Religious Liberty
The greatest axiomatic truth on civil and religious liberty ever uttered was stated by Jesus Christ: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” As the champion of freedom He came “to preach deliverance to the captives, and . . . to set at liberty them that are bruised.” Yes, “true Christianity is the companion of liberty in all its conflicts, the cradle of its infancy, the divine source of its claims.” The principles of the Bible are the groundwork of human freedom—the false, where a man is free to do what he likes; and the true, where a man is free to do what he ought. The Reformation of the sixteenth century sought to free men to do what they ought, and that Reformation was cradled in the printing press and established by no other earthly instrument. Nor can liberty perish so long as our newspapers are free. America must have an unfettered press.
Not religious toleration, but religious liberty, is true Americanism. It is spiritual regeneration, not civic reformation that transforms the transgressor. Compulsion and coercion in religion can make hypocrites and formalists, but it cannot make Christians. It is not the churches’ concern to get men ready for the White House, but to get men ready for heaven.
The Constitution of the United States, which forever separated church and state in this country, was the fruit of a long struggle for liberty and intensive study by great minds. Its greatness lies in this, that it protects the divine right of man against the so-called right of kings and dictators; it permits Congress to establish a court, but not a religion; to suppress an insurrection, but not a newspaper; to close a port, but not our mouths; to regulate commerce, but not our lives; to take a vacation, but not our property. It stands as a buffer between freedom and despotism. It is a stumbling block in the path of ambitious and designing men who would destroy our liberties. It protects the weak against the strong, the minority against the majority. It upholds the sovereignty of the individual. It ensures your freedom and mine. With the great Milton we may say, “Where liberty dwells—there is my country!” Let us stand by the Constitution and honor the men whose blood-bought sacrifice has purchased this land of liberty—
“Where the air is full of freedom
And the flag is full of Stars.”
R. Allan Anderson spent some years in London before moving to church administration in the United States. This 1938 article from Liberty magazine was a fine restatement of enduring principles of civil and religious freedom at a time in history when they were severely tested—a time not unlike ours. Editor.