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Each year on the Fourth of July, we Americans celebrate Independence Day, the day we declared our independence from Great Britain. We all know that simply declaring ourselves independent from Great Britain was not the end of the story. We had to fight a war against the greatest standing army in those days. It would take eight years of fighting, from 1775 (the year before the Declaration of Independence) until 1783, before we could be free from Great Britain.
These are all facts we learned in school about American history. What most of us were not taught, however, was what freedom was really about. We were taught, for example, how the colonists balked at the idea of being taxed without having representation in the British Parliament and how the colonists chafed under the tyrannical rule of King George III. But is this what freedom is — not having someone tell you what you can and cannot do, being able to do what you want? If this is true, then the "American experiment" has been an abysmal failure. Ask the drivers who got traffic tickets whether they were free to do what they wanted. Ask any criminal in prison if they were free to do what they wanted. Freedom, then, cannot be simply about doing whatever we want, like petulant teenagers.
So what is freedom about? One of the great presidents in our history gave us the answer. Abraham Lincoln, who brought us through the bloody Civil War, had a genuine understanding of what freedom is. Pope St. John Paul II would quote him over a century later. Lincoln said: "Freedom is not the right to do what we want, but the right to do what we ought."
This is something worthwhile to ponder and talk about as we celebrate freedom this month. Freedom is the right to do what we ought. How noble this sounds — how profound yet simple! There is only one problem. How many of us give much thought to what we ought to do? Oh yes, we want freedom; we want (and perhaps even demand) that right, but it is an empty right if it is not used for the correct purpose.
By way of example, let us take the First Amendment, which articulated one of our most important and most fundamental rights. It is the first of the amendments to our Constitution for a reason: It is the most important of our rights. The First Amendment reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Contained within this simple declaration is the "ought" our Founding Fathers recognized connected with this right. They understood we not only owe God worship on Sunday but we ought to live as He taught us. If we have these obligations to worship God and live as He taught, then we must have the freedom to live accordingly.
This brings us back to the true meaning of freedom, which is about having the right to do what we ought. Some argue we have lost many of our freedoms and that what is happening today in our country is a taking away of our freedoms. There can be only one reason for this: We are losing our freedoms because we are more concerned with being able to do what we want to do and give little to no concern about what we ought to do.
Another argument often made today is how we must fight for our freedoms. How can we fight for something about which we have little to no knowledge or care little about? If we are to remain free, we must get back to concerning ourselves with how we ought to live. Once we embrace this meaning of freedom, then we will have the courage to fight for our freedoms like the founding citizens of this country did. But it can only happen if we understand and value the true meaning of freedom.
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