Here’s the thing about freedom: When you agree to provide it to some, sooner or later, you have to provide it to all. The Founding Fathers understood that, at least as it applied to slavery.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both understood the practice to be evil, even though both were slave owners. Washington eventually freed his slaves; Jefferson never had the nerve, but both understood the hypocrisy.
They would have been unlikely to consider the concept as it applied to same-sex marriage, but times change. Prejudices give way to a clearer understanding of the meaning of freedom and who is deserving of it. In the United States last week, we came closer to the goal of creating the “more perfect union” that the preamble of the Constitution seeks.
Indeed, as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy observed in last week’s ruling on same-sex marriage, it is our Constitution that requires all citizens to be provided with due process and equal protection of the laws. Does it mean that or does it not?
And from another perspective, the cause of freedom was advanced by the sudden acceptance of states in the old Confederacy that the battle flag they revered was, in fact, a symbol of oppression and racism. That acceptance came only after the searing pain caused by a bigot’s murderous attack on an African-American church group in Charleston, S.C., but at least some eyes were opened to the nature of this flag and prompted a move to banish it from government buildings.
Yes, the Constitution also provides for freedom of speech. Governments were within their rights to fly the flag, just as stores were to sell it. But freedom means choice. Freedom of speech doesn’t require anyone to fly a symbol of hatred any more than it requires cursing in church. Nor does freedom of speech protect its users from the consequences of their words or actions. We also have freedom to evaluate and to draw conclusions.
These developments have delighted many Americans. But those applauding the marriage decision and the change in attitude about the Confederate flag also have lessons to learn about freedom and liberty.
On too many college campuses, some students and faculty feel muzzled by official requirements of political correctness. On some, there is a push to create “safe spaces” where students are shielded from ideas that are contrary to their own and that might challenge their comfort. But freedom of speech presupposes a give-and-take that will sometimes reach beyond the boundaries of decency, but also presupposes the maturity of listeners who are capable of dealing with the messiness that freedom allows. Both are required by the right to free speech.
Thus, it would be intolerable for the administration of a public university to fly the Confederate flag on its grounds but equally so to discipline a student for wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the emblem. It’s not that difficult a concept.
And that, really, is the point: Freedom is not just for some and, surely, that is the seed that lies at the heart of the sometimes ragged but nonetheless glorious American experiment, 239 years old today. If we are true to the vision we hold of ourselves, we cannot discriminate against people because of who they are and we cannot prevent people from saying things we would rather not hear.
The Founders sought to create a “more perfect” union, understanding that perfection, itself, is beyond human competence. Thus, to honor the Founders and the Constitution they wrote, Americans must always be seeking. In so doing, our ideas and our prejudices will necessarily be challenged. That’s how we become more perfect: by testing our beliefs and responding to the requirements of freedom. Our liberty demands that and, happily, it also allows it.