The Roots of Freedom


What is freedom? What are the roots of freedom? Kerby Anderson looks at the Christian roots of freedom along with the writings of the key writers in the Western tradition.

download-podcastWhat is freedom? What are the roots of freedom? Answering these questions is not as easy as it may seem. They require some thought and reflection, which for most of us, is a precious commodity.

Fortunately, some of the hard work has been done for us by professor John Danford in his book Roots of Freedom: A Primer on Modern Liberty. The material in this book was originally material that was broadcast on Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty in the late 1980s. Only later did some suggest that the material should be published so that citizens in a free society could also benefit by his work in describing the roots of freedom.

So how does John Danford describe a free society?

People would surely differ, but what is meant here is a society in which human beings are not “born into” a place—a caste or an occupation, for example—but are free to own property, to raise children, to earn a living, to think, to worship, to express political views, and even to emigrate if desired, and to do so without seeking permission from a master.{1}

Obviously we all have some constraints on us, but human freedom in a free society would certainly involve the freedom to be able to do the things mentioned above.

Once we define a free society, we can easily see something very disturbing. “Free societies have been rare in human history. They also seem to be fragile—more fragile than were the dynasties or empires of the ancient world.”{2}

In the past, freedom was rare often because of economic necessity. There is little or no freedom for a person who must work every waking hour just to survive. In the ancient world, a free man was free because another was enslaved. A free man was free because he did not need to work for a living.

By the end of the eighteenth century, economic necessity ceased to be the main obstacle to freedom in many places. Yet there were still very few free societies, because political power was often concentrated in the hands of a king or dictator (or perhaps in the hands of a few in the ruling class).

Today we have few kings, but we still have many dictators. Free societies also still somewhat rare today. Consider that there are nearly 200 countries in the United Nations, and yet it is probably fair to say that fewer than 50 could truly be called free societies (with functioning democracies).

If nothing else, this study of the roots of freedom should make us thankful we live in a free country. Free societies are rare in history, and they are still somewhat rare today. We should never take for granted the political and economic freedom we enjoy.

Christian Roots

Danford discusses the roots of liberty in his chapter on “Premodern Christianity.” Although we take many of these assumptions (borrowed from Christianity) as basic and obvious, they are important contributions that provide the foundation for the political freedom we enjoy today.

The first contribution from Christianity was its teaching about the value of the individual. In the Greek and Roman empires, the individual counted for little. “A particular individual was of no consequence when measured against the glory and stability of the empire.”{3}

Jesus and his followers taught men and women to think of themselves as significant in the eyes of God. This foundational principle of the dignity and sanctity of human beings was in stark contrast to the prevailing ideas of the day.

Another aspect of this principle was the belief that God was not just the god of a city, or a tribe, or even a nation. The God of the Bible is God over all human beings and savior of all individuals. The belief in the universality of God along with the emphasis on the individual provided an important foundation for liberty because it was “incompatible with the ancient tendency to subordinate the individual entirely to the state or empire.”{4}

A second contribution of Christianity involves the linear idea of history. Ancient writers “understood the passage of time in terms of the seasonal rhythms of the natural world.”{5} Christianity brought a different perspective by teaching that history is linear. The story of the Bible is the story, after all, of the beginning of the world, human sinfulness, Christ coming to the world, and the eventual culmination of history.

The concept of linear history leads to the idea that circumstances can change over time. If the change is progressive, then over the course of human history there can be progress. “The notion of progress is itself a modern idea, but its roots can be discerned in the Christian doctrine that God enters historical time to save mankind.”{6}

A third contribution of Christianity is the principle of the separation of faith from the political realm. Today this is referred to as the separation of church and state.{7} Such an idea was unthinkable in the ancient world. In those cultures, kings and priests were closely connected.

When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees if it was lawful to pay the poll tax (Matt. 22:15-21), He responded by telling them “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Although it would be many centuries before the full implications of this doctrine were clear, the seeds of spiritual freedom can be found in this Christian teaching.

The fourth contribution of Christianity is the belief in objective truth. While it is true that other philosophers spoke of truth, a Christian perspective on truth is nevertheless an important, additional contribution.

For example, if there is no truth, then “there is no such thing as a just or proper foundation for political rule: whoever gets the power is by definition able to determine what is just or unjust, right or wrong.”{8}

In our postmodern world that rejects the idea of objective or absolute truth, all history is merely the history of class struggle. “There is no escape from the endless quest for power, and no space, protected by walls of justice, where genuine freedom can be experienced.”{9}

This nation was founded on the principle (as articulated in the Declaration of Independence) that there are self-evident truths. As Jesus taught his disciples, “you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes was born in England in 1588, and was educated at Oxford in the early 1600s. He was influenced by such men as Francis Bacon (serving as Bacon’s secretary for a time) as well as events of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A principal influence was the religious war and conflict of the time (e.g., the Thirty Years War, conflicts in England between Anglicans and Puritans). “Hobbes’s two great preoccupations [were]: peace as a goal of the civil order, and a new political science as the means to that goal.”{10}

He developed five key principles in his political science. The first is that individuals are more fundamental than any social order. To understand humans, he would argue, we must go back to a “state of nature” which would represent the condition human beings would be in if all the conventions and laws of political society were removed.

Hobbes also argued that humans are equal politically. “No one can be viewed as politically superior, because every human being is vulnerable to violent death at the hands of his fellows.”{11} The natural condition of mankind, he says, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”{12}

Hobbes therefore argues in his second principle that the natural need for self-preservation is the only true reason people live in political communities. In other words, we live in political communities to satisfy individual needs of human nature such as life and security.

Third, Hobbes argues that because these needs are universal (and scientifically demonstrable), they provide a basis for agreement and a peaceful political order. He argues that we should “be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth as for peace, and defense of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things, and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself.”{13}

Fourth, since political society exists for self-preservation, no one can ever give up the right to self-defense. A cardinal principle of a liberal society is that no man can be compelled to confess a crime or to testify against himself in court.

Finally, all legitimate government rests on a contract consented to (at least tacitly) by individuals. Hobbes calls this agreement a “covenant” because it is an open-ended contract, a promise that must be continually fulfilled in the future.

Hobbes also argued that a sovereign must enforce this covenant because “covenants without the sword are but words.”{14} But though he justified a powerful government or sovereign, it was a perspective that was challenged by others like John Locke who believed that even the sovereign must be limited.

John Locke

John Locke was the son of a Puritan who fought with Oliver Cromwell. Though he was not an orthodox Puritan like his father, he was nevertheless a sincere Christian who believed that the Bible was “infallibly true.”

Locke argued in his Two Treatises of Government that men form societies “for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties, and estates, which I call by the general name, property.”{15} On the one hand, he wrote that material things are not owned by anyone but exist in common for all men. “God, as King David says, (Psalm 115:16) has given the earth to the children of men, given it to mankind in common.”{16} But on the other hand, he also acknowledged that we do take possession of things and thus make them our property.

He that is nourished by the acorns he picked under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly appropriated them to himself. Nobody can deny but the nourishment is his. I ask then, When did they begin to be his? When he digested? Or when he ate? Or when he boiled? Or when he brought them home? Or when he picked them up? And ‘tis plain, if the first gathering made them not his, nothing else could. That labor put a distinction between them and common. That added something to them more than nature, the common mother of all, had done; and so they became his private property.{17}

Locke also argued that land is ultimately worthless until labor it added to it. He even goes on to argue that wealth is almost wholly the product of human labor (he says 999/1000 of the value of things is the result of labor).

He also argued that “Men being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.”{18} He acknowledged that each man or woman is born free and becomes a member of a commonwealth by agreeing to accepts its protections, but most commonly this is done by what Locke call “tacit consent.”

Finally, Locke also focused his concern about the possibility of an oppressive government, so he insisted on the necessity of limiting the sovereign power as much as possible. The legislature cannot “take from any man any part of his property without his own consent.”{19}

Locke also insisted on one final limitation of the power of government: the citizenry. He writes, “yet the legislative being only a fiduciary power to act for certain ends, there remains still in the people of supreme power to remove or alter the legislative, when they find the legislative to act contrary to the trust reposed in them.”{20}

American Liberty

The ideas of freedom found their way to the American shore as disruptions of the English civil war drove many English subjects to the New World. In their travels, “they took with them as much of the system of English liberty as would survive the Atlantic crossing.”{21}

Some of the settlers established civil compacts (or what Locke would later call social contracts). Perhaps the best known is the Mayflower Compact, which was a political covenant binding the pilgrims together into “a civil body politic.” Most of these American settlements involved self-government simply because the powers that originally granted them their charters were thousands of miles away.

America’s founding document is the Declaration of Independence. The ideas of John Locke can certainly be found within this document. The Declaration states the principle from Locke that “all men are created equal.” It also follows his thinking by stating “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

All the writers during the founding period (Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton) were “deeply learned in English history, political history generally, and the history of political thought back to Aristotle and Plato. References to Cicero, Tacitus, and Plutarch dot their pages, along with frequent allusions to republics as diverse as Venice, Holland, Geneva, Sparta, and Rome.”{22}

Alexander Hamilton, writing in The Federalist Papers, said that the American people would decide “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”{23}

James Madison, in The Federalist Papers, addressed two key issues in American government: factions and limiting governmental power. He suggested that the large federal republic made it more difficult for factions to gain power and oppress others.

Limiting the power of government was accomplished by separating power. “Ambition must counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”{24} The framers pursued “the policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests” to these various branches of government.

As an extra precaution, the framers also divided the legislature (because it was expected to be the most powerful and dangerous branch) into two different houses. They also decided to “render them, by different modes of election and different principles of action, as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions and their common dependence on the society will admit.”{25}

They further protected individual rights by adding the Bill of Rights. These amendments explicitly deny power to the government to interfere with specific individual freedoms.

As we can see, the rights and freedoms we enjoy today developed over time through Christian influence and key writers in the Western tradition.


1. John W. Danford, Roots of Freedom: A Primer on Modern Liberty (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2000), xiv.
2. Ibid., xiv-xv.
3. Ibid., 13.
4. Ibid., 14.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid., 15-16.
7. See my article, “The Separation of Church and State” on the Probe Web site at
8. Ibid, 18.
9. Ibid., 20.
10. Ibid., 77.
11. Ibid., 83.
12. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1994), 76.
13. Ibid, 80.
14. Ibid., 106.
15. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960), Second Treatise, Par. 123, 395.
16. Ibid., Par. 25, 327.
17. Ibid., Par 28, 329-330.
18. Ibid., Par. 95, 375.
19. Ibid., Par. 138, 406.
20. Ibid., Par. 149, 413.
21. Danford, 146.
22. Ibid., 149.
23. Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers (New York: New American Library, 1961), No. 1, 33.
24. Ibid., No. 51, 322.
25. Ibid.

© 2005 Probe Ministries

Kerby Anderson

Kerby Anderson is president of Probe Ministries International. He holds masters degrees from Yale University (science) and from Georgetown University (government). He is the author of several books, including Christian Ethics in Plain Language, Genetic Engineering, Origin Science, Signs of Warning, Signs of Hope and Making the Most of Your Money in Tough Times. His new series with Harvest House Publishers includes: A Biblical Point of View on Islam, A Biblical Point of View on Homosexuality, A Biblical Point of View on Intelligent Design and A Biblical Point of View on Spiritual Warfare. He is the host of "Point of View" (USA Radio Network) heard on 360 radio outlets nationwide as well as on the Internet ( and shortwave. He is also a regular guest on "Prime Time America" (Moody Broadcasting Network) and "Fire Away" (American Family Radio). He produces a daily syndicated radio commentary and writes editorials that have appeared in papers such as the Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald, the San Jose Mercury, and the Houston Post.


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