It seems more and more commonly to be a commemoration of radical individual autonomy.
Thomas Jefferson Started It
As early as the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration, one of its most important signatories had already begun to effect the transition. On June 26, 1826, Thomas Jefferson declined an invitation to Washington, D.C. to celebrate the anniversary, citing his ill health. (He would die eight days letter, on July 4.)
Jefferson expressed confident hope that American independence would be “the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves.” The “form which we have substituted,” he declared, “restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion.” Now “all eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.”
This was consistent with the “light of science.” It had shown “that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately.” Thus, he concluded, “let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollection of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”
For Jefferson, the necessary and sufficient condition of human liberty is the same: the radical ability of the atomized individual to choose from contrary choices with neither constraint nor reference to moral authority outside the individual conscience. His theory of human liberty, canalized in American law and politics, is different from a Catholic Christian understanding.
The Grand Inquisitor Understands
Jefferson’s exaltation of a certain kind of freedom, and his condemnation of his conception of its opposite, anticipates Ivan Karamazov’s legend of the Grand Inquisitor in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The rise of authoritarian-leaning laws and policies in the U.S. recalls the surrender to authority in the tale, to which such an inhumane theory of freedom declines.
Among other things, the Grand Inquisitor mocks Jesus for bringing (as the Inquisitor tendentiously defines it) autonomous moral liberty to his followers, an autonomy that they do not want and cannot endure. “The mystery of man’s being is not only in living, but in what one lives for,” says the Inquisitor. “Without a firm idea of what he lives for, man will not consent to live and will sooner destroy himself than remain on earth.”
Rather than “taking over man’s freedom,” he taunts Christ, “you increased it still more for them.”
“Did you forget that peace and even death are dearer to man than free choice and the knowledge of good and evil? There is nothing more seductive for man than the freedom of conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either.”
The horror of this moral autonomy — this glimpse into the abyss — led Jesus’ followers to submit to authoritarian rule over their religious and moral lives, epitomized — the Inquisitor charges — by a caricature of the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
Christian freedom is not the radical autonomy that the Grand Inquisitor suggests. Nor, therefore, is the reactionary submission to authoritarian rule over conscience and thought. It may be that the false definition of freedom still inevitably leads to its surrender in authoritarian forms.
The Christian finds his freedom not in the autonomy of choice, but rather in confirming the meaning and purpose of free will; not in unencumbered choosing, but rather in choosing toward a proper end; not in liberating his conscience, but rather in properly forming it. We find liberty not in throwing off constraints but rather in embracing the truth about the human person.
Mutual interdependence — not radical individual autonomy — is the necessary component of the Christian understanding.
We neither preach nor ought we practice — let alone celebrate — isolated individualism, but solidarity with our fellows. Alyosha, who finds his liberty in embracing the suffering of others, offers a truer vision of freedom than Ivan. The descent into madness by Ivan — for whom all things are permitted — is Dostoevsky’s not-so-subtle affirmation of this.
When we uncritically embrace the Grand Inquisitor’s Jeffersonian notion of liberty, of which Independence Day has become a proxy, we unwittingly celebrate a notion of freedom that is — at best — in tension with the freedom for which Christ has truly set us free.
Perhaps we Americans should take the 4th of July not as a celebration of American freedom but as a reexamination of it.
Kenneth Craycraft is a licensed attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He holds the Ph.D. in theology from Boston College, and the J.D. from Duke University School of Law. His previous article for Chapter House was The Catholic Problem With Pride Month.
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