In the movie “Chicken Run,” a dauntless hen named Ginger is determined to lead her egg-laying companions to freedom. It’s a good movie. What American viewer doesn’t enjoy seeing any hardy band—even a band of chickens—make it over a fence through their own courage and tenacity?
Freedom is a beautiful, delicate thing; always in danger. We humans lack the focus of Ginger the hen, and we find it easy to prefer comfort and pleasure over the rigors of risk and responsibility. Furthermore, we are often tempted to try to improve the world by seeking power over our unsatisfactory neighbors. Even though most Americans recognize the need to defend freedom, we tend not to agree on how to identify its biggest threats.
When Christians and conservatives express concern about the future of liberty in America, they are often accused of whining about loss of privilege and “playing the persecution card.” Certainly, some conservatives are just as hysterically immature as the loudest of trigger-warning-happy progressives, and of course a bit of prayer-shaming on Twitter is a far cry from being decapitated for one’s faith.
Yet sane conservatives are not simply screaming about trifles like holiday coffee cups. Instead, we see a philosophy that is so at odds with our own that, if it continues to grow in power, cannot but attempt to silence us in the public square. The problem is not simply that their belief-system is at odds with our own convictions or that, at least among the media, it is more popular than ours. It is that its beliefs are inherent threats to freedom.
The Horizon Is Dimming
Exhibit A is the progressive conviction that their own vision of social justice must be prioritized over freedom of conscience. Exhibit B is the way that postmodern rejection of reality leaves individuals so adrift from history, community, and morality as to make them incapable of finding true freedom.
This is part of the reason why our society is increasingly willing to enslave itself to pornography and other industries that leave us dehumanized and less able to live free, meaningful lives—to turn our minds and attention into an economic product that can be bought and sold. It is surely also part of the reason why bureaucracies increasingly take on the responsibilities and power of increasingly broken families and local community.
As a mother, I am left wondering how to rear children who are capable of being free and of defending others’ freedom. It is not enough for me to teach my children to shoot holes in The New York Times with their favorite sidearm or to deliver impromptu lectures on American history. I want to rear children who can be free even if their guns are confiscated and their beliefs marginalized. I want to give my children true convictions, self-control, and a firm identity. Only then will they be capable of helping to protect and restore a free society, or of surviving in a society that has lost its way.
Instill True Convictions
The addict downing vodka, the online troll, the father who abandons his family, the student cheating for an A, the woman lashing out at her dog, the teenager pumping little-understood hormones into his body in an attempt to acquire characteristics of the opposite sex—none of these people are making themselves more free. Wrong choices simply enslave their chooser within his own appetites and confusion and leave him vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation.
As Stratford Caldecott says in “Beauty in the World: Rethinking the Foundations of Education,” “We imagine that the more choices we have, the freer we are. In reality, a multitude of choices makes us no freer than we were before unless we have the freedom (that is, the power, the ability) to choose between the right action and the wrong action. Thus the truth about good and evil is intimately bound up with our freedom. . . . A myriad of evil choices is no choice at all.”
The ability to identify what is right does not come as easily to human beings as we like to think. In fact, postmodernism’s rejection of our ability to know truth leaves us uniquely primed for subjugation to leaders who cannot now be held accountable to truths that transcend both them and us.
Furthermore, just as mere choice does not necessarily bequeath freedom, neither does information, because without an understanding of key questions—“What is the purpose of life?” “What does it mean to be a human being?” “How do I know what is good and what is evil?” or even, “What is freedom?”—information is a mere commodity, useful in daily life but incapable of guiding it. The same can be said of critical thinking and other learned interpretive skills.
How will my children know truth? They must be taught it. I believe that we find it in Holy Scripture, and also in works of art, literature, theology, and philosophy that reflect greater or lesser pictures of truth, goodness, and beauty. The way to understand it is not to follow one’s own ignorant heart but to educate one’s heart by joining the conversation of the centuries.
Many Americans will disagree with my source of truth. That is why I wish to equip my children to engage in cultural and national conversations about belief. Without facing and addressing the reality that true convictions underlie true freedom, we cannot be a society that fosters liberty.
Even if a time comes when this conversation is forcibly shut down, choices are curtailed, and goodness is persecuted, it is knowledge of right and wrong that can make my children free despite oppression. If my children recognize truth, they will be free to reject falsehood, even if doing so earns them civil punishment.
The marshmallow study observed that very young children who were able to delay gratification were later able to achieve greater success in life. As nineteenth-century educator Charlotte Mason puts it in “School Education,” “The man who can make himself do what he wills has the world before him, and it rests with parents to give their children this self-compelling power as a mere matter of habit. . . . ninety-nine out of a hundred things we do, are done, well or ill, as mere matters of habit.”
The habit of self-control will liberate my children in multiple ways. Firstly, it will protect them from captivity to their own laziness, lusts, and human appetite for overindulgence. Just as the person who cannot recognize good is unfree, so is the person who can’t stop checking Facebookevery three minutes.
Secondly, it will protect them from commodification and exploitation in today’s world. Writer Mark Manson points out that information is no longer a scarce resource: something else is. He argues, “In the new economy, the most valuable asset you can accumulate may not be money, may not be wealth, may not even be knowledge, but rather, the ability to control your own attention, and to focus. . . . In the future, your attention will be sold. And it may be that the only people able to capitalize, are the people that can control their own.”
Citizens who can control what they click on, listen to, and ponder are capable of addressing problems for longer than a few news cycles. In contrast, citizens who can focus only on the latest wardrobe malfunction, the latest quip of Donald Trump, or the latest mass shooting cannot be trusted to assist in the governance of the nation.
We have reached an unfortunate point in history when politics apes surfboarding and politicians ride each wave of anger to push their preferred agenda. No wonder all members of the political spectrum have become increasingly strident: it is necessary to amplify the waves in order to accomplish anything.
Thirdly, self-control is closely tied to the ability to do what is right, and therefore to the ability to be free. Knowing what is true is only half the battle. We might all be capable of bracing ourselves to face a single great moral challenge, but without the habits Mason speaks of, we will find living in truth and freedom too exhausting for daily life.
Establishing a Firm Identity
Even the ordinary American who has no intention of identifying as a different sex, age, or species is vulnerable to the cultural message that if reality—i.e., who he is as husband, son, neighbor, or friend—is interfering with what he wishes to be, his own desires should always trump his commitment to care for the needs of others.
This belief has destroyed families with the efficiency of a grim reaper in a party hat. Currently, fewer than half of American children live with both of their parents in a family in which both parents have never been married to anyone else. The children of inconstant adults learn early on that other humans cannot be trusted in the most fundamental ways, and that each of us ultimately depends only on ourselves. Parents who choose their own identities force their children to do the same.
I pray that my children will be spared this pain. My marriage is probably one of the biggest factors in how they will later think about themselves and human relationships. By living as faithfully as I can in my various vocations of wife and mother, daughter and sister, friend, citizen, and neighbor, I hope to show them that although they are individuals, they are also members of a community. Who they are can then be defined not merely by what they want or by who they lust after, but by how they can serve others.
I want their sense of self to be buttressed by biological and physical reality. However, it is even more important for them to realize that they are not merely the sum of material parts. They are also human beings with eternal souls, created and redeemed by a loving God, and that is the most important definition of all.
Because of this, their human value is already defined. Furthermore, they will know that even when we humans flake out—even if I as a mother fail them—God won’t. Their identity will be shaped by the knowledge that they are not, and never will be, alone in a world of isolated individuals.
Chickens (and Children) Who Can Be Free
Ginger the hen is so determined to achieve freedom that she declares a willingness to “die trying.” It is no coincidence that Ginger could also always be counted on to try to protect and care for her fellow hens. Her ability to risk everything for liberty was inextricably tied to being a chicken who knew what was right, who had the self-control to do it, and whose firm identity left her free to seek—well, freedom.
I may not be able to argue down postmodern lunacy or aggressive progressive social revolution. I may not be able to assist in defeating ISIS or other groups who would love to turn our country into a war zone. I may not even be able to help our country develop the virtue that Benjamin Franklin declared an essential prerequisite of freedom. However, as a parent, I will do my best to rear and educate children who will be the sort of people capable of being free, no matter who controls the world of their adulthood. The rest is up to them.