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By McKenzie Hahn

“What will you do without freedom?”

Everyone can picture the scene from the movie Bravehart: Mel Gibson as William Wallace astride his Spanish purebred stallion, rallying troops before the Battle of Stirling. Morale was low, the soldiers wanted to go home, and he needed to give them a real reason to fight. What was the point, they argued, if their lives could be spared by running away?

And then come the famous words: “Sons of Scotland…” Wallace essentially asks his men: since we all die, is it better to die a young, free man or to live a long life as a slave?

We are never given a straight answer to Wallace’s question in the rest of his speech, because it is implied that we each inherently know – and know rightly – how foundational freedom is to our existence. This idea was powerful enough to motivate the troops to risk their lives for its defense, sans explanation, so deep does this knowledge apparently run in our hearts.

Of course, not everyone agrees on what the definition of freedom entails. That was never clearer than in the first day of one of my political science classes. “What you believe matters,” the professor had just finished announcing, and for that I was thankful. “Belief informs action. But what, then, is freedom?” he continued. I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t have a good answer. Unfortunately, no one in the class did, either, and we sat in silence for a long time before our professor decided to move on and come back to the concept another day… probably thankful none of us were 13th century Scotsmen.

In the days that followed, it occurred to me that moral relativism and postmodernism cannot give a satisfying, rational answer to this question. If freedom has no real, unchanging, objective definition external to us – if it can mean whatever we want it to mean – then why should we have laws that are binding upon all citizens? Instead, why not let everyone do exactly what they want, choosing between all the alternatives open to them? After all, there would be no right or wrong answer to the question of how to live a free life or exercise what you perceive as your freedom – and, perhaps more frighteningly, no rule or law would apply to the why or the how.

Of course, this view is divorced from morality of any kind. Even the stodgiest libertarians in the bunch admitted in subsequent classes that freedom allows people to do what they want so long as it doesn’t infringe upon the freedom of others. My freedom to drive my car, for example, ends at your bumper.

It still seems like this definition is lacking in some way, however, pitting rules or law against freedom rather than illustrating how the right law gives us more freedom. For example, freedom implies a kind of trust in morality. Jay W. Richards points this out in his book, Indivisible: Restoring Faith, Family And Freedom Before It’s Too Late. “If the strong can steal, enslave, or kill the weak, they have no reason to trade freely. It’s only when people must compete according to the rules that true economic freedom exists.” If people trust that they are not going to be stolen from, enslaved, or killed, it makes true freedom – the freedom to earn a living, to seek and express the truth, or to worship God, for example – possible.

In other words, freedom only exists within a framework of moral absolutes.

Granted, this definition doesn’t mean everything will run smoothly all the time. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be conflict with other views, racism, hate or intolerance. And it doesn’t mean that people still won’t break the rules. But if we think freedom is meaningless while in reality freedom is meaningful, how will we know until we’ve lost it, and what will we do without it? Worse, if freedom is definition-less, then the act of losing freedom, slavery, is also definition-less. How can you lose something, after all, which has no real meaning in the first place?

American economist, social theorist, and political philosopher Thomas Sowell asserts, “There have been many wise warnings that freedom is seldom lost all at once. It is usually eroded away, bit by bit, until it is all gone. You may not notice gradual erosion while it is going on, but you may eventually be shocked to discover one day that it is all gone, that we have been reduced from citizens to subjects, and the Constitution has become just a meaningless bunch of paper.” Now if only he knew how to ride a horse…