Samuel Smith wrote the words for “America” in 1832, while a student at Andover Seminary. The fourth verse is virtually a prayer, beginning with the familiar words:
Our father’s God, to Thee, Author of liberty.
The prayer is addressed, not to some god in the Hindu pantheon, nor to the gods of the Medes and Persians, but to the God of the Bible, the God of our Judeo-Christian heritage. What is unique about this idea of God, and in what sense is he the Author of liberty? Let’s go back a few thousand years. The common opinion in the ancient world — an opinion still prevalent — was that a god is useful to have around to sanction social practices, to guarantee prosperity, and to insure victory in battle. When the gods were angry, you had a run of bad luck, so you had to butter them up until you changed their attitude. If a crop failed, the god in charge either responded to your incantations, or you fired him. If your tribe lost a battle, this signified the superior medicine of the victor’s gods, so you adopted them. The Victorian novelist, Samuel Butler, felt that many of his contemporaries still clung to such childish notions, which he satirized by declaring: “To love God is to have good health, good looks, good luck, and a fair balance of cash in the bank.” Too many people, and not only in the ancient world, act as if they regard God as a sort of cosmic bellhop eager to run their celestial errands for them, while revealing the short cut to success and the secret of get-something-for-less schemes.
The ancient Israelites were the first people to discard the notion of a god kept on tap for luck and tricks. They lapsed now and then, but were jerked up hard by their prophets, who proclaimed the God of righteousness and truth; these men saw the workings of God even in their own poverty and defeat. Theirs was not a kept god who could be worked on by magic to serve the devious ends of men. He was the God of religion who laid down the rules for an orderly universe in which men, by learning and obeying the commands, earn their own way. This God cannot be bought or bribed — in contrast to the god of magic — and men see his handiwork in the preponderance of order, harmony, balance, and economy in the workings of the universe. This universe plays rough but fair; it can be trusted. Its trustworthiness, translated over into the material world, becomes the natural sciences tracing cause and effect sequences and drafting laws to describe the workings of natural phenomena.
A stone falls because it has no choice in the matter; hydrogen cannot refuse to enter into a combination with oxygen under certain conditions. There’s no freedom at the level of physics and chemistry. But life comes onto the scene and adds a new dimension.
On the biological spectrum with an oyster, say, at one end, and a chimpanzee at the other, we note an increasing freedom in the higher forms of life, culminating in man. The universe is not random but intentional, and one of its intentions issues in a creature gifted with a novel kind of freedom of choice.
Man appears on the scene, Nature’s wayward son. The eminent biologist, Lecomte du Noüy, broadly surveys the planetary scene and declares that “everything has taken place as if, ever since the birth of the original cell, Man had been willed.”¹
Here, at last, is a creature so radically free, so insulated from the instinctual controls that guide animals, that he can defy the laws of his own being. Man’s will is free; all other creatures obey the laws of their nature, but he alone possesses that radical freedom which makes it possible for him to deny his Maker. We sometimes accuse tyrants of trying to play god, but this is not an apt metaphor: God himself does not “play god”! We have the gift of an inner freedom so far-reaching that we can choose either to accept or reject the God who gave it to us, and it would seem to follow that the Author of a freedom so radical wills that we should be equally free in our relationships with other men. Spiritual liberty, of the sort men have, logically demands conditions of outer and social liberty for its completion.
The goal of collectivism is the perfect adaptation of man to society and society to nature. We challenge this goal with the conviction that every person has a destiny beyond society. He has a soul, for whose proper ordering he is responsible, not to society or to the state, but ultimately to God.
Such an understanding of the nature and destiny of man is the cornerstone of a free society. Whenever a significant number of people become aware of their inner freedom and its demands, they will have little trouble in establishing the secular institutions of liberty in their society. They will limit government so that there will be no political invasions of the sacred prerogatives of individual persons; they will secure every person’s rightful property, and trust their economic problems to the market for solution. These things are in the realm of means, but they are indispensable means for shaping the right kind of social conditions out of which individual persons may emerge as society’s completion and fulfillment.
Man does not create himself, nor write the laws of his being; but man does make himself. And as he does, he begins to discover who he is and what he may become. “That wonderful structure, Man,” wrote Edmund Burke, “whose prerogative it is to be in a great degree a creature of his own working, and who, when made as he ought to be made, is destined to hold no trivial place in the creation.”
May we then seek to serve the Author of our liberty, in whose service we find our perfect freedom.
Originally published in the January 1966 edition of The Freeman. Read more from the Edmund Opitz Archive.