Called Unto Liberty, 20th Century Sermons, Kenneth W. Sollitt, 1960
Two youngsters from London were enjoying a holiday in the country. They romped and played until they were completely worn out. They threw themselves down on the cool green grass and lay watching the clouds and the birds above the treetops. After a short silence one of the boys looked at the other in alarm.
“What on earth is the matter with you?” he asked. “Why do you look so sad?” To which the sad one replied, “I was just thinking of those poor little birds up there. They haven’t any cages!” He was sad because the birds were not safe—in bondage—like boys and men under socialism.
I am one of those horrible nonconformists who believes that when you trade freedom for security you pay too big a price. But apparently there are millions of people who do not think so, and thousands who naively believe you can have both, if you just elect the people who promise them to you.
The people to whom Isaiah addressed his words in Isaiah 28 were the politicians of his day who in open defiance of Isaiah’s warnings had plotted a secret alliance with Egypt. They had defected to the enemy. Isaiah appeared in the midst of their rejoicing over the imagined security Egypt might give them to warn them again that only in God is there a sure defense. Their “covenant with death,” as he called it, would not save them. The bed they had made for themselves would soon be seen to be too short for them. The imagined benefits with which they were about to cover themselves would soon be seen to be too narrow. God would use their enemies to teach them what Isaiah had not been able to teach them. And they would soon awaken to find that they had neither security nor freedom.
“Now therefore do not scoff,” Isaiah says to all who will not heed his warnings. “Do not scoff lest your bonds be made strong.”
Isaiah reiterates his message of hope, however: “Therefore thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation…. and I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet; and hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, and waters will overwhelm the shelter.’ ” (Isaiah 28:- 16, 17)
Belief in God
There are at least four foundations of freedom. Whosoever scoffs at these foundations and builds on others cannot endure. The first of these is belief in and reliance upon God.
Here is the tested stone, the precious stone, the sure foundation of which Isaiah speaks.
I do not expect to get much of an argument in response to that statement. But how easy it is to say we believe in God and then worship other gods ahead of him—to stamp on our coins, “In God we trust,” and then put our trust in political ideologies that have over and over again proven to be beds too short and covers too narrow!
Such is the socialism into which we have walked with our eyes wide open, and the communism toward which we are headed. Both begin with our willingness to spend our lives in government-issue bird cages rather than accepting the responsibilities of free men and women. So we make a god of government and quite forget the government of God.
The oyster is endowed with a ready-made house to live in. All he has to do is to open the doors of his house to take in his food and close them again to keep out his enemies. He would seem to have perfect security. Yet he is easy to catch, crush, and cook, and always ends up in the soup.
The eagle, on the other hand, is peculiar among created things in another respect. When the winds blow, he neither fights nor runs. He simply sets his wings so the fury of the storm itself lifts him above the storm where, because his wings are strong, he remains “free as a bird.” And only the fool would pity the eagle because he isn’t an oyster.
Yet in the last thirty years Americans have become so brainwashed by the idea that freedom always means freedom from something instead of freedom for something that, like the oyster, we are in retreat from everything—want, worry, war, and work, too, if possible—and in pursuit of nothing but more comfortable cages with beds which are never long enough and covers which are never wide enough. Are we becoming a nation of oysters?
To our forefathers freedom was a positive thing. It was freedom to worship, to work, to win in honest competition, and to grow strong thereby. And they wisely chose the eagle as their national emblem. Beneath this emblem and under God they built a great nation on the sure foundation. We, their children, have instead sought to lengthen our beds and stretch our comforters by trying to multiply wealth by dividing it, by trying to get rid of our little problems by creating a big one called government, and expecting it to give us what it does not first take away from us. Thus we make government our Golden Calf.
“Government is my shepherd. I shall not work. It maketh me to lie down in a fool’s paradise. It leadeth me into deep water but it refills my dinner pail.”
I will probably be as unpopular as old Isaiah. Still I say to you, for I believe thus saith the Lord, Insofar as we as individuals and churches and a denomination have been guilty of building up this “refuge of lies,” as Isaiah would call it, we need to repent of our folly and begin preaching from our pulpits the virtues of honesty, self-reliance, and reliance on God instead of government.
Government Limited by a Constitution
This brings me to the second foundation of freedom which is constitutional government.
No one denies that we have to have government and that we have to pay for it. (And thank God we still aren’t getting all the government we pay for! When that happens we will be in bad shape.) But let us have a government that will be our servant and not our master.
That’s what the framers of our Constitution intended our government to be. Those men were not only students of history. They were also victims of it. To make sure that we should never have to suffer the governmental tyranny from which they had fled, they created a government with these three unique characteristics: (1) The government’s authority was limited to specific delegated powers. (2) All authority not so delegated remained with the states or the people. (3) The federal government’s power was carefully divided into three separate branches with specific duties and realms of influence, each to check and balance the others.
These men were still mindful of the Declaration of Independence. In that document, after stating the conviction that men had certain “unalienable rights” such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” they made crystal clear what they thought the purpose of government was: “to secure these rights governments are instituted among men,” they said (emphasis added).
Then came the thirties and Mr. Roosevelt with his emergency powers and his new philosophy of government which he expressed in these words: “Government has the definite duty to use all its powers and resources to meet new social problems with new social controls.”
This he justified by saying that it was “to insure the average person the right to his own economic and political life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”
This lip service to the Constitution while tossing it into the discard kept people from seeing that you can’t protect man in the exercise of his legitimate liberties by imposing on him controls which destroy those liberties. So we launched on an era of social control utterly new to Americans. Those who received economic benefits kept voting for more and more of the same, for in those days it wasn’t quite so obvious that no President could give us what he didn’t either first take from us, or charge to our children and grandchildren.
We invented a fascinating new parlor game in which we all stand in a circle, each with his hand in the next person’s pocket, all seeking to get richer thereby.
So today, instead of the great god government protecting us from being robbed by others, we have a government which, if you vote right, promises to rob everybody else for your benefit. We don’t seem to see even yet that what one man gets without earning, another man must earn without getting, and that this is not right, and because it isn’t right a society so organized cannot endure. He who has made “justice the line and righteousness the plummet” is not apt to see justice in legalized piracy, or righteousness in those who love to play God.
How long has it been since you read these words from Luke 12:13 and 14: “One of the multitude said to him, ‘Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.’ But he [Jesus] said to him, ‘Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?’ “
Is it unfair to say that about nine-tenths of all our so-called social progress has consisted in taking from the man who has and giving to the man who wants? I know we have had the best intentions, but can that excuse us for doing in the name of Jesus what Jesus himself would not do? We may have had the sympathy of Jesus in our hearts, but we have not had the wisdom of Jesus in our heads.
In addition to repenting the sin of making a god of government we need to repent the sin of playing God ourselves.
A third foundation of freedom is Christian ethics.
I see five ethical problems confronting us—problems about which the Church has no right to be silent.
1. If it is wrong for a politician to buy votes with his own money, what makes him a great humanitarian to be backed by the churches when he buys millions of votes with other people’s money? Is bribery in the one case right and the other wrong? If so, what makes it so?
2. If it was wrong for a few plunderers, or “robber barons,” to enrich themselves at the expense of others (as happened during the “Gilded Age” of our history), how can it be right, and therefore worthy of our backing, for laborers to be kept secure in jobs at which they refuse to work? Is it wrong for the few to rob the many and right for the many to rob the few? Or is robbery still robbery no matter who commits it? Or does HOW we commit the crime make the difference? If you think it does, that brings up our third problem:
3. Why is it wrong to take what belongs to another with a bullet in a gun but right to do it with a ballot in an election? Does making a thing legal make it right?
If four of us go out to dinner tonight and three of us decide that the fourth must pick up the check (and three out of four is a whopping majority), must the Church uphold the verdict that the majority is always right? Or is it that we just don’t feel so guilty if the majority shares our guilt? And that brings up another question:
4. Can we delegate our responsibility for wrongdoing by electing those to public office who will do wrong for us? Who is guilty when we vote for the man who promises to rob collective Peter to pay our selected Paul?
5. Is it right or is it wrong for us as churches, or as combinations of churches, to pass resolutions and lobby for programs which obliterate the relationship between reward and effort, which destroy human dignity by making half the people victims of piracy and the other half victims of charity, and which smother initiative and self-reliance by replacing them with indolence and reliance upon others?
Either we have done a lot of fuzzy thinking in this area of Christian ethics as it applies to social action, or we have merely swallowed packaged propaganda programs appealing to our sympathies for first this segment of society and then that, without thinking at all.
If I were the devil and wanted to turn America into a communist hell, I think I would go about it something like this:
I would cultivate among the people the idea that the individual is nothing, the indiscriminate mass of people everything. I would also seek to convince Americans that God and Christian ethics and an honest desire to make one’s own way in the world are old-fashioned.
I would get elected to office on the promise of helping everybody at someone else’s expense.
Then I’d treat the Constitution as a sort of handbook on the philosophy of government to be referred to only if it served my purpose.
I would increase the size and scope of government in every way possible, going into every conceivable business in competition with established enterprises, paying the state’s business losses out of the treasury. I would try to keep hidden how this could lead at the right time to the nationalization of industry.
I would create a government strong enough to give its citizens everything they want. Thus I could create a government strong enough to take from them everything they have.
By a combination of inflation and taxes I would rob the very people I pretended to help until, if they ever should want to return to freedom, they couldn’t but would be completely dependent on the State.
Next, I would gradually raise taxes to 100 per cent of income (we are one-third of the way there now) so that the State could have it all. Then I’d give back to the people enough to keep them alive and little enough to keep them enslaved.
In the meantime I would take from those who have and give to those who want until I killed the incentive of the presently ambitious man and satisfied the meager needs of the rest. The police State would then be required to make anybody work, and the transformation of America from a republic to a second rate communist nation would be complete.
Do you see in this any similarities to what we have been doing for thirty years?
The communist slogan is “From each as he is able, to each as he has need.” We are acting as if ours were “From anyone who has something, to anyone who wants something.” The difference between those two is the same as the difference between an alligator and a crocodile.
Strength of Character
The fourth foundation of freedom then is individual strength of character among our people.
We are not devils. We don’t want to wreck America. We want to make her, under God, a great nation. The trouble is we of the churches approach all our problems heart-first instead of headfirst. This is entirely understandable. Thank goodness we have hearts.
Because we have hearts, we are interested in people—all kinds of people everywhere. It is because I am interested in people that I don’t like what I see happening to them. While we boast that “we are rich and have need of nothing,” we desperately need a strength of character that will reverse the trend of alcoholism, divorce, juvenile delinquency, and adult crime. These are on the increase everywhere, and I think I know the reason why.
It is because freedom and character rise or fall together. You cannot develop character without freedom of choice. One must be able to choose the wrong in order to develop the ability to choose the right. On the other hand, freedom cannot long endure where there is no character to maintain it. We are witnessing a steady decline of both freedom and strength of character in America, partly because we have said, “This is the age of the common man, and the common man is too dumb or too wicked to make any decisions for himself. They must all be made for him in Washington.” Unless we give the common man the opportunity and the incentive to become uncommon if he can, there will soon be a shortage of angelic politicians to make our decisions for us.
Charlotte Elliott, author of Just as I Am, once wrote to her congressman about a matter involving an injustice to a certain individual. She received the reply that the Senator was too busy with plans affecting the great American public to be concerned about one man. It is said that Miss Elliott pasted the reply in her album with this comment penned below it: “When last heard from, our Maker had not reached this altitude.”
Here is one of our troubles. We are so involved in grandiose schemes to save everybody at once that we seem to have lost our interest in saving individuals. Yet a redeemed society can be made of nothing except redeemed men and women. No possible rearrangement of bad eggs will ever make a good omelet.
A good society is one based upon the cooperation of its members. Cooperation must be either voluntary or forced. Voluntary cooperation depends on incentives to cooperate. Forced cooperation leads to a police state type of government. Therefore, we automatically choose between a society of free men and a society of slaves when we choose between the creation of incentives and coercion by law. Social Action Committees within our churches would do well, in my opinion, then, to turn their attention away from coercive social legislation to the preservation of our vanishing incentives.
You cannot coerce into existence a Henry Ford, a Thomas Edison, or an Alexander Graham Bell by making it an un-American activity for a common man to become uncommon. But you can provide a social climate in which uncommon men can develop. And that climate is one which provides economic and social incentives. It was our Master’s way of dealing with men to lead them by incentives rather than compelling them by law. It was incentives, not laws, that made our nation great. The way of the Master must once more become the way of his Church, or God pity both us and our nation.
The Reverend Kenneth W. Sollitt is Minister of the First Baptist Church of Midland, Michigan. This article was his sermon at the annual meeting of the Michigan Baptist Convention at Battle Creek, October 21, 1960. Published in the February 1961 edition of The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty. Used with the permission of the Foundation for Economic Education. All rights reserved.
Called Unto Liberty is a project of The Moral Liberal, Editor In Chief, Steve Farrell.