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My wife and I were walking out of the grocery store; the man wearing a T-shirt adorned with “Sorry I Can’t Hear You Over the Sound of My Freedom” was walking in. Gretchen and I spent the ride home speculating about the meaning of the shirt’s cryptic message. It felt aggressive. Something in me quickly assumed it was about the wearer’s right to ignore mask mandates and vaccines. But who really knows? We both were unsettled by it.
A week later I saw another “freedom” T-shirt that left no mystery: “Whiskey Drinkin’ / Gun Totin’ / Throat Punchin’ / Freedom Lovin’ / American Patriot” Wow! I was tempted to point out that legally the wearer’s right to throw a punch ended where my throat began . . . but I didn’t want to get punched. Or shot.
What in the world has happened to freedom?
Is this what 16 million Americans served in the Armed Forces during World War II to protect?
Freedom ain’t what it used to be. It lives untethered. Nowadays freedom simply means, “You can’t tell me what to do.”
As the Delta variant makes COVID numbers surge, and new mask rules, mandatory vaccines, and more shutdowns loom, a lot of people are asserting their freedom.
What the freedom T-shirt wearers lose sight of is that freedom always exists in tension with other commitments. Are you married? Tell me about your freedom. Saying yes to your spouse means saying no to all sorts of freedom. Do you obey traffic rules? Stand in lines? Pay for your meal at a restaurant? We sacrifice individual freedom constantly for higher values and the common good. This doesn’t make you a sheep. It makes you human. Yes, mask mandates and vaccination orders are infringements on personal liberty. But they are not tyrannical government overreach. They are simply public health orders for the common good.
Alas, that argument is based on reason, logic, and common sense. I don’t think for a minute it will change the mind of a single “freedom lovin’ patriot,” because something much deeper is at play. We delude ourselves if we think reason sits atop our brains and orders our thoughts and actions. Not so. What’s the logic of ignoring mask mandates because God will protect me while owning a gun for . . . protection? Many, many things trump logic. Foremost among these is identity.
Freedom has become a buzzword of a particular identity. I don’t know what to call this identity. It gets expressed on T-shirts, it plotted to kidnap the governor of Michigan, and it stormed the Capitol on January 6. Some use the word “conservative,” but this isn’t traditional conservatism. Some use the word “Republican,” but this Republican identity would not only be unrecognizable to Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, it would be unrecognizable to Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon. And some use the word “Christian,” though it’s not a recognizable form of orthodox Christianity. (As the character in the old movie Hannah and Her Sisters put it, “If Jesus came back and saw what was being done in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.”)
This identity likes guns, is anti-science, pro-oil drilling, doesn’t believe in the climate crisis, is simultaneously pro-life and pro-death penalty, is anti-immigration, is angry about Afghanistan but opposed to resettling Afghani refugees, is anti-gay marriage (so much for personal liberty), complementarian, white, Nationalist, and uses words like “freedom,” “liberty,” and “patriot” a lot. What is the “freedom” glue that holds this identity together? Sometimes it feels like fear. At other times it feels like anger. What’s its vision for the future? Even Tucker Carlson, the master of white outrage, recently called the Republicans “inept and bad at governing,” and said, “The party is much more effective as an oppositional force than it is as a governing party.” As Groucho Marx once sang, “Whatever it is, I’m Against It.” This identity may have found a champion in Donald Trump, but it’s truest expression these days is found in the outrageous Trump-wannabes who are newly minted members of Congress like Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Here’s Gaetz recently on the coronavirus: “I got the Florida variant. I got the freedom variant. It affects the brain. It gets you to think for yourself where you just don’t surrender to the truth that they’re trying to create in corrupt big media.” (But why then do I think of Fox News when he says “corrupt big media”?)
Greene said that freedom “was on the ballot in 2020,” and “once it’s gone, freedom doesn’t come back by itself. The only way you get your freedoms back is it’s earned with the price of blood.”
People are dying in Florida and Louisiana and other virus hot spots because of thinking like Gaetz’s. Greene’s words are just plain scary. Scary like wearing a T-shirt about throat punchin’ and gun totin’. Or scary like Alabama Representative Mo Brooks’s tweet last week after a bomb threat at the Capitol: “I understand citizenry anger directed at dictatorial Socialism and its threat to liberty, freedom and the very fabric of American society.” In the freedom world, blowing up the Capitol or attacking it on January 6 is understandable and excusable while mask mandates are the work of dictators. Truth be told, Gaetz and Greene and Brooks and Carlson and Trump and the Michigan militia exhaust me. Just as the pandemic has exhausted me. I want to scream, “CAN’T YOU SEE THAT YOUR EXERCISE OF ‘FREEDOM’ IS PREVENTING THIS PLAGUE FROM ENDING?” But, once again, that’s the realm of reason. At my worst, I smolder. At my best, I don’t know how to love and help the polarized sides.
Consider the words in Galatians 5:13. I like the way Eugene Peterson translated it in The Message: “It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows.”
“Serve one another in love, that’s how freedom grows.” Maybe the place to start is by putting that on a T-shirt.