“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.”
Former President Ronald Reagan reminded us of that fact many times during his career. It’s a truism, however, that we don’t readily live by. We like to think of Americans as the rugged individuals of the wild west. We take it almost for granted that we’re “exceptional” as Americans and that America will always remain free because, well, ‘Merica.
The fact is, however, that we’re human beings just like everyone else. We can fall for the same traps; we can be misled in the same ways; we can want the wrong things. We as readily cry out for the bread and circuses as did the ancient Romans. We may be as susceptible to mass hysteria and the call of the demagogue as were the Germans in the 1930s. We can be as ready to trade liberty for safety as Benjamin Franklin feared we might.
American liberty is as fragile as any other liberty in human history. Our political leaders can be as opportunistic, egotistical, shortsighted, and power-hungry as any. To treat our moment as “special” or our nation as “exceptional” and exempt from the rules of human history is to endanger the freedom bequeathed to us by our predecessors.
Sometimes freedom withers away over time. Sometimes it’s crushed by the tyrant. Sometimes it’s lost to good intentions and expert assertions. It’s only ever preserved with vigilance.
Two decisions by political figures in the last week stood out above the others to bring this lesson to the forefront of my mind.
Bans Going Too Far
In my own state of Kentucky, our governor has gotten significant plaudits for his handling of the crisis. He has held press conferences where he’s steady, calm, and resolute. But (and this should be a warning to all governors and other political leaders during times of crises), he eventually went too far.
Heading into Easter Sunday, his stern warnings and strong advice to avoid church services was not enough, he determined. When would-be worshipers came up with creative ways to do both worship and social distancing, he used the threat of the force of the state police to rein them in.
On Good Friday, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear announced that the state police would be dispatched to church parking lots, gathering license plate numbers and threatening forced quarantine to anyone parked there on Easter Sunday.
The mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, took this as inspiration and went even further by banning even parking lot and drive-in movie services where families would not have gotten out of their cars. (This all happening, by the way, while liquor stores are open for business in the state, and restaurants have been freed to deliver mixed drinks to people waiting in their cars at the curb.)
Now, I support most social distancing advice and think it’s having a good impact on keeping our illnesses down to manageable levels. My family didn’t attend a service in person on Easter but gathered around our TV and shared communion with each other. That was the right call. We were free and socially responsible, as were thousands of churches around the nation who streamed their services online, and as were millions of Americans who stayed home.
I don’t necessarily support those who gathered against the best advice of the medical community and our political leaders. However, religious services cannot be subject to the same potential governmental interference as just any other meeting of citizens. There is, of course, the higher moral standing of places of worship, but we also have the First Amendment to the Constitution, which makes it very clear that the force of government cannot be wielded to interfere with the individual’s right to worship.
Though originally binding only the power of the federal government, that amendment has been applied (and we have accepted it) to bind state power as well. From the Pilgrims’ landing to the adoption of the First Amendment to our oaths sworn on holy books today, what is the story of America if not the story of religious freedom?
When protestors showed up at Kentucky’s capital and interrupted Beshear’s press conference with noise outside, he threatened them with police action and set up barricades so they couldn’t peaceably assemble near the Capitol. The First Amendment also protects peaceable assemblies and freedom of speech.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has gone even further. In Michigan, her draconian edicts even ban lawn-mowing businesses. And what struck me as the most egregious of all, she has banned stores from selling seeds and garden supplies to Michigan citizens.
The government banning people from buying seeds! This seems like a plot from a dystopian movie, but it’s happening in real life now. Even during good times, so many of us grow some of our own food in our backyards and common garden plots. How many more of us, with our food supply under strain and our livelihoods under assault, might take up the task of feeding our own families on our own land?
To take away a person’s ability to feed their own families from their private property is the ultimate government overreach and it should not be allowed to stand.
Ronald Reagan reminded us so often that freedom is fragile. He reminded us that missteps in any one generation can lead to the extinction of the freedom we so value. Sometimes that freedom is lost because we lose the willingness to fight for it. Sometimes it’s lost because we lose our ability to recognize the threats. Sometimes it’s lost because we fail to pass along the wisdom and the imagination that supported it.
However it’s threatened, freedom is never more at risk of extinction than during a crisis such as war or economic depression or pandemics. While we act as free and responsible citizens, it is also our role to defend freedom, to rein in the political class when it goes too far, and to teach our children that freedom is too precious to be lost, even in scary times.
Gary L. Gregg is host of the new podcast McConnell Center Podcasts and author or editor of a number of books on American history and politics.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.