The role of freedom is waning. The high hope of a free world, so widespread two generations ago, is today in obvious decline. Wherever human liberty survives it dwells under somber shadows. The West distinguishes itself from the Soviet bloc especially as the champion of human freedoms. In contrast with the totalitarian enslavement of man, and the disregard for human dignity and rights in the Soviet sphere, the virtue most publicized by democratic nations is that they are “freedom-loving.” The twentieth-century conflict between the totalitarian and the nontotalitarian worlds is a conflict over man’s position and his rights and duties.

Search for a rationale

Yet the West itself betrays a growing search for a rationale of freedom. That the Western conception of freedom needs to be revitalized is increasingly recognized and confessed. Multitudes of citizens in the favored Free World today lack a dynamic devotion to the cause of freedom and a missionary zeal to proclaim its message to men near and far. The spontaneous passion to enlist recruits under the flag of freedom is missing. The political crusade upholding individual worth and dignity is carried forward mainly by specialized organizations and technical leaders. What the West lacks is a passionate popular enthusiasm for liberty.

Beyond doubt the Western view of human dignity and human rights presupposes a worthier outlook on life than does the communist devaluation of man. The Free World detaches itself, and rightly so, from the materialistic attempt to limit human life to finite considerations. Cooperation and loyalty require more than an appeal to underprivilege and misunderstanding; they demand a recognition of basic values. The West grasps the great fact that the strength of life and culture, and the permanence of nations, rest ultimately upon moral and spiritual foundations.

Yet the contrast between the Free World and the Soviet bloc cannot, in this respect, be reduced to an absolute antithesis. And the reason it cannot is complex. Even within the Soviet sphere, however counterbalanced they may be, there remain large groups of Christian believers who have not flexed the knee to Karl Marx. The West may take heart that such advocates of human dignity and responsibility, however thwarted in effectiveness, exist even on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Moreover, the tenets of the West and of the East cannot be reduced to two wholly hostile positions—a fact that should give the West no cause for gratitude. They cannot be so reduced because of the ambiguity over freedom in the West—an ambiguity that extends to the conception of the nature, the sanctions, and the sources of freedom. The West itself has not worked out a philosophy of human freedom that provides a satisfactory antithesis to the totalitarian world’s philosophy of the enslavement of the individual spirit.

Article continues below

Freedom in fuzzy outline

The West’s lack of a positive philosophy of freedom is increasingly acknowledged to be a major Free World weakness. The communist philosophy is categoric and precise; the West’s concept of liberty is indefinite and fuzzy. With the destiny of the world hanging in the balances, an ambiguous program holds little prospect of converting the impressionable masses permanently to its side.

Weaknesses in the West’s position are easily detected, however statesmen may defend them. The United Nations, with which the West has cast its lot, includes not only the U.S.S.R. and its veto but also lesser powers with scant sympathy for democracy or who, like France, seem to prefer a death-bed struggle to the disavowal of imperial colonialism. Apart from these considerations, the apparent foreign policy of the West reflects strategic concessions to material-expedient factors. An equally distressing weakness arises from the present tendency of some Free World leaders to champion only political freedom, cutting the plea for democracy and political liberty adrift from such fundamental issues as religious liberty and economic liberty.

Yet these important issues must inevitably be brought into any comprehensive discussion of human freedom. The distressing fact is that the West’s conception of freedom today is not one, but many. The Free World defends “the dignity of man,” but its agreement is mainly negative, against the communist view; it is not at all unanimous on the meaning of human dignity. The same charge may be leveled against the lack of a single definition of such everyday terms as democracy, free enterprise, capitalism, and so forth. In fact, organized propaganda continually bombards the man of the West in the interests of competing definitions of these controlling ideas.

Conflict of ideas

This lack of agreement in the West is due in part to an unresolved conflict in its culture, and reflects the lingering influence of the biblical and Renaissance traditions upon its past and present life. As a result of this conflict, friends and foes of theistic supernaturalism, carrying on an important war of ideas between themselves, claim an equal right and authority to fix the Free World’s definition of its governing terms. Thus, for example, UNESCO is headed by an aggressive humanist, whereas the President of the United States emphasizes an inseparable connection between the democratic outlook and the fact of man’s creation in the image of God. At the Geneva summit, the agnostics and atheists were not all on the Soviet side of the conference table.

Article continues below

Lack of dynamic

But this absence of synthesis and precision in the ideology of the West is not the only reason that the principle of freedom is incompetently shaped by the Free World. Alongside the problem of leadership in the West stands the problem of the masses. The case for human freedom and responsibility is often cast in a philosophical form quite beyond the grasp of the man on Main Street. The communist appeal to the masses has the virtue of simplicity, going with dramatic directness to some of the basic interests of life. The picture of the dedicated cadres of Communism, vigilant vanguard of the totalitarian thrust, supplies a disturbing contrast to the West’s fervorless and undedicated recognition of the priority of human freedom over slavery. Free men and nations do not long remain free unless they understand what freedom is and promote it with an enthusiasm that exceeds the vigor of untruth.

How, then, can the West “firm up” the case of freedom? Is there a simple yet valid appeal, calling for a personal dedication and a militant defense of liberties? How can the ideology of freedom gain dynamic? Can the West forge a positive and an evangelistic formula of freedom to replace a merely defensive statement?

The present tendency in the West is to position a nation on the yardstick of Freedom versus Slavery merely by the degree of individual liberty available to its citizens. Whatever worthwhile elements this preserves, it is a vulnerable measure of freedom.

The significance of the individual is, doubtless, an important criterion in gauging the submission to or resistance of totalitarianism. Whenever individuals accept personal responsibility and promote human rights they strengthen the bulwark against statism. The right of individual conscience to an opinion and to a decision about the reigning “class conscience” is essential. A state that minimizes this personal responsibility is increasingly vulnerable to totalitarian influences, which subject its citizens to society and society to the state.

Article continues below

In the free society, the military and police force protects individual rights, whereas in a totalitarian world, they enforce the will of the state. Indeed, the police state is dedicated to the abolition of personal freedom. In the free society, individual right of conscience in religious worship is upheld; in a totalitarian climate, the individual is hedged about either by a patriotic religion or by state irreligion. In the free society every citizen has the right of free and secret ballot; in a totalitarian nation, elections are predetermined, with a forced vote for but a single candidate or party, and reprisal if the citizen withholds his ballot. In a free society, the individual holds the right conscientiously to criticize the state alongside his obligation to support it; in a totalitarian atmosphere, the state is the lord of conscience, and individual disagreement means elimination. In the free society, social and economic distinctions do not imply differences in personal worth, nor do they exclude fraternal relations between the dictator, the high party functionaries, the party members, the general hierarchy, the proletarian masses, the slave masses, and the enemies of the state.

From these contrasts it is clear enough that every freedom-loving nation in defending the dignity of the human person must champion also the sanctity of individual conscience, in contrast with communistic suppressive tendencies.

Negative indication only

But does not the importance attached to the individual, expressed in this bare way, fail to supply a safe index to the actual presence of human freedoms? May it not rather simply give a negative indication of the absence of formal slavery? Is freedom ever simply the possibility of acting in a certain way in relation to the state? Is the individual’s ability to resist state aggression really a conspicuous and conclusive victory for the forces of freedom? Can freedom really be weighed accurately upon scales whose weights bear no other identifications than these: Will of the Individual, Will of the State? Is the revolution for freedom, in totalitarian lands, decisively implemented by the mere defense of certain horizontal freedoms for the individual?

The West tends to reply—quite in the spirit of the Renaissance, rather than in the spirit of the Reformation— that human freedom implies human responsibility, and. the freedom of the one man therefore implies similar freedom for every man. Individual freedom is guarded from becoming individual license, or individual tyranny, by the obligation of the one who invokes these freedoms for himself to de fend these same freedoms for all.

Article continues below

What of the durables?

This emphasis, that all privilege implies obligation, and that human rights imply human responsibilities, is good enough as far as it goes. The trouble is, it does not go far enough. It provides no adequate conception of the source, sanction, and scope of human freedom.

As a matter of fact, this approach cannot even show that human freedom is a permanent value. The reason is plain enough—it has not yet risen to the distinction between the temporary and the eternal. But if democracy is always superior to totalitarianism, if the dignity and freedom of man are permanent values, as against the communistic antagonism-then it becomes necessary to show that some things are eternally true and good.

Beyond naturalism

To establish the fact that truth and values endure, that they are eternal and unchanging, and not subject to revision from time to time and from place to place, it is necessary to refute the naturalistic thesis that everything is time-bound, or that distinctions of truth and morality are subjective and changing. The vindication of a supernatural order of truth and goodness is therefore prerequisite to the vindication of the enduring value of democracy and of human freedom. Unless distinctions between truth and falsehood, and between right and error, are ultimate, no convincing defense of the permanent truth and value of the democratic concept is possible.

Merely opposing the right of individual conscience to the calculated communist disregard and destruction of individual conscience does not meet head-on the hard core of the communist dogma that the interests of the state are above every personal moral code, religious inclination, family affinity, and political ideal. The point is not that individual conscience is unimportant; indeed, every worthwhile theory of morality must assign a significant role to conscience. No act can be considered moral unless performed with the approbation of conscience. The subjective sense of good intention and right conduct, the confidence that an act is performed out of moral obligation, are essential to ethical performance. An act that accomplishes “the right thing” quite by accident and lack of intention can never under those circumstances alone be a moral act. Therefore the communist doctrine, that the dead individual conscience is a virtue of the “good” party liner, must be resisted with might and main. (The communist himself tacitly admits the indestructibility of individual conscience, and is driven to reckon with its ineradicability. For he resorts to internal subversion, terrorism, revolutionary tactics, purges and military force in order to reduce individual conscience to a mere reflex “class conscience.”)

Article continues below

Role of conscience

But what is done conscientiously, even by the individual, is not on that account right. For the human conscience is finite and fallible; it requires education. Indeed, the Christian religion would go even further, contending that the conscience of man as fallen and sinful is distorted, needing regeneration and the guidance of revelation. The “sensitive individual conscience” can be regarded, therefore, as the diametric opposite of Communism only when one goes beyond the merely humanistic or idealistic constructions of man. The individual conscience, no less than the group conscience, may be wrong; individual conscience is not right simply because it is personal. And a wrong conscience imposed upon life is as wrong when it is individual as when it is collective. Indeed, even a group conscience need not always be wrong, and may at times be nearer the truth than a lone individual.

The theological horizon

If one aims seriously to reply to dialectical materialism, simply to insist on a balance of human rights with human responsibilities is not enough. The rights and privileges of every individual do indeed carry an inherent obligation to sustain these same freedoms for all others. But that human beings have rights and obligations is not a matter of anthropology alone, but of theology as well. The word “inherent” is misleading—a humanist or naturalist may deploy it in the service of atheism—even in the West. The only compelling basis for speaking of inherent rights is the theological fact that man is a creature bearing the image of God, so that his experience is bracketed by enduring distinctions of truth and goodness.

The fate of freedom turns on far more, therefore, than a sensitized individual conscience. It turns upon individual conscience sensitized specifically toward the living God, and toward His Word and commandments. The fate of freedom is suspended in the last analysis not on the alternative of the individual orientation or the state orientation of conscience, but on the Godward orientation of individual and state alike.

Article continues below

Modern crisis spiritual

The modern crisis, in which the West itself is entangled more deeply than its leaders suspect, is therefore a religious crisis. Decision for or against the living God is revealed as the upper side of the decision for or against the dignity and worth of the individual. The Hebrew-Christian religion of redemption, of the self-revealing God, vindicates a special view of human freedom-its source, its sanction, its scope. The Mosaic Law and the Gospel of Christ crackle with relevance for the modern debate over man and his worth. The Great Commission is not tangential to the crisis of the twentieth century. For Christianity is the purveyor of human freedom on the only level adequate to repel the communist revolution. It can show that lying, cheating, stealing, and murder are wrong because God by commandment forbids them-not simply because the United States forbids them (after all, in America adultery is not treated as nearly so objectionable), nor because the United Nations forbids them. They are wrong not merely because some state or superstate deplores them, but because God forbids them. Whoever therefore is bound by party discipline to perform them is obliged by the will of God to resist the will of the party.

Carl F.H. Henry is the editor of Christianity Today.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.