Memorial Day and the Divine Provision of Liberty
At first, it was called Decoration Day. It was established as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers and to remember these fallen ones. Three years after the Civil War, on May 5, 1868, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. Some have suggested that this date was selected because flowers would be in bloom nationwide. By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day (as it is now more frequently called) involved annual ceremonies conducted throughout the country on May 30. Following World War I, Memorial Day was expanded to honor Americans who have died in all wars in which U.S. citizens have fought. In 1971, an act of Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday, and its observance was placed on the calendar as the last Monday in May.
Gen. Logan’s order for his posts to decorate graves in 1868 “with the choicest flowers of springtime” also included the charge: “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. . . . Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic” (United States Department of Veterans Affairs). Memorial Day is a time to remember the price that has been paid for the preservation of liberty. Even more basic than this, Memorial Day serves as a reminder to thoughtful people of the very provision of liberty. The Declaration of Independence affirms, “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.”
The Source of Liberty
The Founders of the American Republic believed that liberty was an objective reality provided to humans by the Creator of human existence. They were right. The Source (i.e. origination) of all liberty (freedom) individually, nationally, and universally only has rational and objective reality in theism. The theistic doctrine is the view that the world is the handiwork of a supreme, omnipotent and omniscient intelligence, referred to as God, Who created it in order to bring into existence rational beings (humans), whom God created to inhabit Earth. Conway states the “theistic doctrine . . . once formed the lynchpin of western civilization” (4). Furthermore, freedom is “the capacity to choose evil or good . . . rational choice in accordance with moral law” (Tennant 131). Ronald Reagan said, “[T]he freedom to choose a Godly path is the essence of liberty” (web). Since it is the case that good or evil cannot have objective reality without the existence of God, and it is also the case that objective moral law cannot exist without God, then freedom, as a rational concept, is dependent on the very existence of God.
Materialism (i.e. the view that everything in existence is nothing more than matter in motion operating according to physical laws) cannot speak in a rational way concerning freedom or liberty. This is the case because, given the materialistic doctrine, “. . . the human brain is nothing more than an ingeniously assembled computer whose programming has been done by chance and natural selection” (D’Souza, Christianity 241). If humans are “machines created by our genes” and the “predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness” (Dawkins 2), then how much sense does it make to talk about declaring “ourselves independent of our selfish genes” (D’Souza, Christianity 241)? Richard Dawkins speaks confidently of what he believes to be the case, i.e. humans “are machines created by our genes,” but then speaks of “how we humans morally ought to behave” and of building “a society in which individuals cooperate . . . unselfishly” which he implies cannot be done from “our biological nature” (3, emp. added). Such is the absurdity of materialism. Such is the absurdity of atheism. And such a philosophy not only by implication negates the existence of God, but negates the objective reality of liberty and freedom. Levin argued the case for God that is inherent in the reality of human rights when he wrote:
Is it possible that there is no Natural Law and man can know moral order and unalienable rights from his own reasoning, unaided by the supernatural or God? There are, of course, those who argue this case—including the Atheist and others who attempt to distinguish Natural Law from Divine Providence. It is not the view adopted by the Founders. This position would, it seems, lead man to arbitrarily create his own morality and rights, or create his own arbitrary morality and rights—right and wrong, just and unjust, good and bad, would be relative concepts susceptible to circumstantial applications. Moreover, by what justification would “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” be “unalienable Rights” if there is no Natural Law, since reason alone cannot make them inviolable? What then is Natural Law if its origin is unknown or rejected? It is nothing more than a human construct. An individual may benefit from the moral order and unalienable rights around which society cannot organize itself that way. It would become unstable and vulnerable to anarchy and tyranny, imperiling all within it, especially the individual. The abandonment of Natural Law is the adoption of tyranny in one form or another, because there is no humane or benevolent alternative to Natural Law. (26)
Christian theism is responsible for many of the principles that relate to how many today view the concept of freedom and liberty. For example, the Christian revelation entails the affirmation that God places infinite value on human life, and Divine love is extended to every human equally (cf. John 3:16; Acts 10:34; 17:25-28; 1 John 2:2; 4:10; et al). Dinesh D’Souza explains this point in the following statement:
. . .[H]uman equality is a gift from God: we are endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights. Indeed there is no other possible source for them . . . . The modern idea of freedom, by contrast, is rooted in a respect for the individual. It means the right to express our opinion, the right to choose a career, the right to buy and sell property, the right to travel where we want, the right to our own personal space, and the right to live our own life. In return, we are responsible only to respect the rights of others. . . . Christianity has played a vital role in the development of this new concept of freedom through its doctrine that all human beings are moral agents, created in God’s image, with the ability to be the architects of their own lives. (Created Equal 3, 5)
Additionally, Michael Novak (1933-2017), who served as Ambassador of the U. S. Delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, has said:
. . . [F]ounding era documents . . . appeal to a particular concept of God. . . . [T]his God is almighty, and created the mind free. . . . The notion that the foundation of our rights lies in God’s work has been officially deployed in many congressional and presidential decrees and proclamations. . . . [H]uman rights are guaranteed by the sovereignty of God.
. . . We should not want the [Supreme] Court to be pro-Jewish or pro-Christian. But we must insist that it show reverence for the moral foundations of the principles of religious liberty—foundations well located in Jewish and Christian conceptions by the classic documents of the American founding. (1, 3, 6)
Thomas Jefferson, who likely has been misrepresented more than any of the Founders, left no question concerning the ultimate source of liberty. He said, “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time” (qtd. in Bartlett 373). Later, Jefferson asked “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?” (Thomas Jefferson Foundation).
The Survival of Liberty
Not only is it the case that the source of liberty (freedom) individually, nationally, and universally is in God, but the survival of liberty will have reality only in theism. Former Time magazine correspondent David Aikman wrote, “Atheism, when adopted wholesale by any government or society, has very profound and—as was evident in the twentieth century—disturbing consequences for political liberty. Every single one of the Founding Fathers understood this. . .” (136). David Conway, in a book highly acclaimed by the late Professor Antony Flew (cf. Flew 92-93), identifies Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) as the father of “currently fashionable post-modernism” (Conway 98). Nietzsche saw his life’s mission as that of waging war “against belief in God, especially in its Christian form” (128). The vital connection that the Christian belief in God has to the survival of liberty was implied in the warnings of Nietzsche concerning the values of Western civilization. D’Souza explains: “The values of the West are based on Christianity. Some of these values seem to have taken a life of their own, and this gives us the illusion that we can get rid of Christianity and keep the values. This, Nietzsche says, is an illusion. Our western values are what Nietzsche terms ‘shadows of gods.’ Remove the Christian foundation, and the values must go too” (Christianity 77).
The above observation is significant in view of the findings of a thirty-one year old Chinese journalist who conducted a two-year research project in which he set out to answer why freedom has been so prominent in Western society to the exclusion of non-Western societies. He presented a scholarly paper reporting his findings at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association in Chicago. In part, he said:
. . . [T]he single most important thing I would like to share with you here is this. The faith in God as the Lord is the beginning of freedom. When I began my project, the main question I asked is how and why freedom both as a value and as an institution figured prominently only in the Western society and even now still largely remains confined to this part of the world. . . . The more I knew about the growth of freedom in the West, the more I was captivated by the role of the faith in God as the Lord in the making of a free and responsible civilization. There may have been various reasons why liberty largely failed in the non-Western world. For me, a major reason for the stillbirth of freedom in the non-Western societies is that the bedrock for the building of liberty was missing in these cultures. That is, the faith in God as the Lord did not become a vital part of the non-Western consciousness. One cannot say that individuals in those parts of the world did not want freedom. Yet in societies like China with which I’m most familiar, freedom could not stand a realistic change of becoming a positive value or a viable institution in much of their history because the rule by men instead of the rule of law was the constant pattern. For them, law was virtually the will of men in power so that it’s meaningless to call for the rule of law. . . . However, for societies where the faith in God as the Lord figures prominently, law is independent of the will of humans. It’s the will of God, the Lord. The only truly right thing one can do is to do the divine will. . . . For me, that freedom could basically survive in the West is not by accident, nor mainly by the Western individuals’ extraordinarily persistent struggle for liberty, but by their prominent obedience to the will of God compared to the rest of the world. And may I put it in another way: a free West is simply a by-product of its continued faith in God as the Lord in spite of the rise and fall of various forms of idolatry. (Xu)
The above conclusions of this young Chinese student serve to undergird President Reagan's aforementioned belief: “The freedom to choose a godly path is the essence of liberty” (web).
It is evident from the foregoing that the “whole tenor of human life is certainly affected” (Adler 543) by an affirmation or denial of God. One of the basic ways in which the influence of Christian theism is manifest is in both the source and survival of liberty. As the ultimate price of liberty is remembered on Memorial Day from the lives of those who have paid it, the provisions of liberty also need remembered. Those whose freedom to practice no religion we will defend, but their conclusion that causes them to do such, we will affirm, without fear of successful refutation, is irrational. The very doctrine of theism of which they seek to rid the world is, in fact, the only objective basis for the freedom to do as they choose. The source and the survival of human liberty find objective reality in the existence of God and His objective divine revelation.
On Memorial Day, let us remember the lives of those who have died for liberty. Careful thought will also cause one to remember the Ultimate Source of this liberty and the Eternal Providence which sustains it. James Russell Lowell exposed the terrible mistake committed by those who forget such:
The worst kind of religion is no religion at all, and these men living in ease and luxury, indulging themselves in the amusement of going without religion, may be thankful that they live in lands where the gospel they neglect has tamed the beastliness and ferocity of the men who, but for Christianity, might long ago have eaten their carcasses like the South Sea Islanders or cut off their heads and tanned their hides like the monsters of the French Revolution. When the microscopic search of skepticism, which had hunted the heavens and sounded the seas to disprove the existence of a Creator, has turned its attention to human society and has found a place on this planet ten miles square where a decent man can live in comfort and security, supporting and educating his children unspoiled and unpolluted; a place where age is reverenced, infancy respected, manhood respected, womanhood honored, and human life held in due regard—when skeptics can find such a place ten miles square on this globe, where the gospel of Christ has not gone and cleared the way and laid the foundation and made decency and security possible, it will then be in order for the skeptical literati to move thither and then ventilate their views. But so long as these men are dependent upon the religion which they discard for every privilege they enjoy, they may well hesitate a little before they seek to rob the Christian of this hope, and humanity of its faith, in that Savior who alone has given to man that hope of life eternal which makes life tolerable and society possible, and robs death of its terrors and the grave of its glooms. (qtd. in Smith 32)
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This article was first published for the Warren Center website May 21, 2010.