With the Fourth of July just a day behind us, maybe it's a good time to reflect on not just the freedom we enjoy in this country - but, equally as important, on the responsibility that accompanies it.
In the first century, the apostles Peter and Paul said: "Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil" and "You, my brothers were called to be free, but do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature."
In the 16th century, the great political philosopher Montesquieu defined liberty as "the right to do everything the laws permit; and if one citizen could do what they forbid, he would no longer have liberty" ("The Spirit of Laws").
In our age, liberty has become the right with no limits. That is, "this is a free country, you can't tell me what to do, say, or publish, or how to live."
Many have come to accept the idea that limits are evil, values are relative and, if our perceived rights are violated, our right to sue supersedes all other rights.
The natural and, therefore, unalienable rights granted us by the Creator, which Jefferson spoke of in the Declaration - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - are not rights without limits.
With no limits, human life becomes degraded, base and animalistic. Without limits, liberty becomes license and ultimately self-destructs from abuse.
As Charles Adams observed in his book, "Liberty carries the seeds of its own destruction" ("For Good and Evil, The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization"). The Japanese, when first exposed to the idea of liberty found no adequate translation for the concept (Muslim writers faced the same problem), and finally settled on the word "jiyu," which means licentiousness. (M.I. Finley, "The Ancient Economy").
This is not to say that liberty in our country should have greater legal restrictions or that the natural rights of life, liberty and property (or any other rights articulated in the Bill of Rights) should be abrogated in any way. As Thomas Jefferson adequately and succinctly said, "Better a dangerous liberty than a peaceful servitude."
As Montesquieu defined it, liberty is the right to do everything the law permits. The limits of liberty, however - those things the legal code of a nation may or may not permit - can never be adequately addressed by law. Limits can only be addressed by a people's inherent moral consciousness.
Our founding fathers stood firm in this conviction, but our society is gradually rejecting this reality. This tension between liberty and licentiousness is natural to a free people.
Recognizing this, and the fact that our Constitution or any constitution cannot fully address these limits, our founders called for a moral and religious populace. They promoted the idea of religion and morality publicly and privately.
John Adams, our second president and a significant contributor to our constitution posited that "our constitution was made for a wholly moral and religious people, it is unfit of the government of any other."
George Washington confirmed the same, suggesting that, "of all dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports."
Clearly a free people cannot and should not require or compel its citizenry to religious or spiritual pursuits. What the leaders of a free society can do is encourage and support the people in their pursuit of religion and the knowledge of the God who created and endowed them with natural rights.
For it is the creator who grants rights, and not government. It, therefore, follows that it is only through knowledge of the creator, who created and "endowed" us with "certain unalienable rights" that society learns civil responsibly in the exercise of these rights.
Jefferson realized this and actually supported funding for the construction of churches (Catholic) among the Kaskaskia Indians during his administration. This would suggest that Jefferson saw a clear connection between "the moral and educational dimensions of religion" and a people exercising freedom responsibly ("Sworn on the Alter of God, A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson").
A people inculcated with the idea that they are "under God" are a people who can learn to exercise their liberty responsibly. Conversely, a society in which this ideology is systematically and intentionally stricken from a people's conscious thought, where the idea of God and government are mutually exclusive, is destined for a licentious "liberty" of vice, corruption, and lechery, thus sowing the seeds of its own destruction.
The recent Enron and WorldCom debacles provide evidence to support this premise.
We must recognize where and how people learn the ethics of courage, justice, temperance and prudence and lead them to pursue these virtues.
These are the great cultural and cardinal virtues that make a free nation great and free forever.
Tom McGillvray works as a financial adviser and previously served for 10 years in pastoral ministry in Billings. As a citizen statesman, he seeks to promote ethics and values in families, government and business.
To be featured The Faith & Values column appears regularly in the Saturday Life section of The Billings Gazette. Pastors, ethicists, educators or other experts who would like to write a column about faith, ethics or values for the section, should contact: Susan Olp, Billings Gazette, 401 N. Broadway, Billings, Mont. 59101. Or call her at 657-1281, fax to 657-1208; or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.