It feels as though the threat to the American way of life has never been greater. The news media, academia, and corporate America all have their levers of power aimed at destroying the American tradition of freedom and virtue in favor of state control and a culture that thinks one can live a life without responsibility.
Yet some point to freedom as the cause, not the solution to our current crisis. They might say our society lacks virtue because of freedom. In reality, however, freedom and virtue are interdependent. In these revolutionary times, both are under attack and both are worth fighting for.
Sixty years ago, on September 11, 1960, our nation faced similar threats to today: international communism, anarchy, and a culture in decay. On that day, nearly 100 young conservatives from 44 colleges drafted the Sharon Statement, which became the founding document of Young Americans for Freedom and the formative document of the conservative movement.
Embraced and explained throughout the statement is the idea of fusionism: the idea that “the belief in virtue as the end of men’s being implicitly recognizes the necessity of freedom to choose that end.” That embrace was consistent with how many of the Founders also thought of the relationship between virtue and freedom. Benjamin Franklin, for example, noted that “[o]nly a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
The Sharon Statement recognized that freedom is at the core of both the American tradition and the American conservative movement (whether libertarian or traditionalist). It first recognized that “foremost among the transcendent values is the individual’s use of his God-given free will, whence derives his right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force.” It went on to recognize the importance and morality of economic freedom, order, limited government, an America First foreign policy, and the threat of international Communism.
Indeed, the vision of a balance of freedom and a virtuous society — a synergy that helped form the modern American conservative movement — was laid out beautifully in the Sharon Statement. Today, however, that vision is under serious attack.
First, today’s government limits freedom insofar at it stifles our ability to choose the good. We are in revolutionary times. The state purges religion from the public square; burdens the ability of parents to educate their children; limits the ability of families to defend themselves; controls the fruits of our labor; silences conservative views on college campuses; and shields technology companies from lawsuits over harmful content. Perhaps this is rooted in the left’s commandeering of what it means to be “free,” but in reality, this is neither free nor good.
Second, as our government limits our ability to choose the good, our cultural institutions actively promote the bad. Large corporations bankroll groups that seek the downfall of the nuclear family, the entertainment industry sexualizes adolescents, and the news media denigrates our national heritage in favor of its Marxist political ideology.
Given the interdependent nature of freedom and virtue, as well as the present revolutionary decline of both in our society, the challenge for conservatives in the next generation is twofold. First, we must both concertedly advance freedom, and second, we must also pressure our institutions and each other to embody virtue. The goal, in short, is to restore the American tradition.
This twofold challenge, however, does not mean a binary choice of freedom or virtue. Indeed, choosing one over the other is self-defeating. As Frank Meyer explained so well:
Truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it; and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon brings about conditions that pave the way for surrender to tyranny.
Ultimately, forsaking either front would mean acquiescence to the revolution, a concept wholly contrary to the essence of conservatism. The responsibility of conservatives today is to restore the American tradition of freedom and the necessary conditions to secure it.
In these revolutionary times — and on the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Sharon Statement — we must re-up our fight for both freedom and virtue. This fight cannot be won on Twitter or on Fox News. It requires the combined hard work and courage of every freedom-loving American, boldly standing up in every American institution.
In our educational institutions at least, thousands of Young Americans for Freedom members are carrying on the legacy of those before us boldly fighting to restore the American tradition. We have an uphill battle, but so are most battles worth fighting.