The USA has long fascinated me, and I have embarked on a series of reflections on culture in the USA, using American film or television as a prompt. This is the third article and considers the foundational concept of freedom within American individualism.
The Right Stuff (2019)
In the 2019 National Geographic production The Right Stuff, a limited series based on the Tom Wolfe book and the 1983 movie about the USA’s involvement in the space race there is a fascinating and defining scene. (Series 1: Episode 4: Advent)
Astronaut and original Mercury Seven member Alan Shepard shows his daughter Emily how to raise the American flag on the pole at the front of their home. He asks her about the flag:
Alan: You know what this is? Do you know what it means?
Alan: Yeah, but not just the country. An idea. Freedom to choose your own life.
There are some core elements that stand out when one considers the USA and freedom ranks high, if not at the top. One of the difficulties for the USA is that the focus on individual freedom promotes individualism, and this reduces common understandings or shared concepts of what can unite the country. The idea of freedom and choice is now understood and used in different ways by those on the political left and the political right, even if both have a fundamental individualistic foundation.
There is a stereotyped view that the politically conservative have such a strong focus on the individual and freedom that their ideal is to provide no public funding for anything and allow a free-market economy based on profit alone. The opposite stereotyped view is that the politically liberal left would provide total public funding of anything (including a UBI), curtailing the American entrepreneurial spirit in favour of a socialist community where everything is doled out equally.
Neither side however has a monopoly on one ideology, simply because there is more fluidity in politics overall, particularly within swing states that have a range of views to be placated.
The politically conservative usually connect freedom with the spirit of individualism and entrepreneurship, often reaching back to founding times and independence to highlight these themes. It is about being free to do business with little or any government restriction at all. Individuals are encouraged to have their own beliefs and to act on these beliefs. Here, the individual is in danger of legitimising their own behaviour and beliefs based on their own experience and achievements. In Christian understanding this can lead to a reduced appreciation of common grace and the wider community we are called to serve in God’s world.
The politically liberal (or progressive) usually connect freedom with endorsement by the state and have often used lobbying to move the government to provide restrictions to enable rights for certain individuals, but significantly as ‘groups of individuals’ that one may be part of or connected to. The individual here derives legitimisation of their behaviour and beliefs by the government and then oddly, eventually the society that they once disdained. For a Christian, there is the danger of being caught up in an understanding of justice that is based on ever changing contemporary mores and personal experience, rather than orthodox beliefs.
The freedoms they both seek will often conflict with each other, increasingly so as certain issues become the catalyst for taking the higher moral ground or ‘last stand’ by the large and varied support groups.
Mrs America (2020)
This fascinating and somewhat frustrating nine-part drama provides an insight into the developing polarisation within the USA. The series illustrates the themes of freedom and individualism and small versus big government quite well, within the context of the Schlafly led conservative opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and the developing feminist movement in the 1960s.
There are some poor personal vignettes of the main characters whether they are conservative or ‘progressive’, though the orientation is to stereotype the conservative women as odd and old-fashioned, particularly the protagonist Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the Eagle Forum, who is intriguingly played by Australian Cate Blanchett.
It should not surprise anyone that the differences between American citizens have increased over time. The foundation of each side has become more entrenched with the multiplication of major concerns and issues, the expansion of lobby groups, and lately the involvement of American companies. The irony is that contemporary ‘progressive’ movements, particularly those within what are essentially capitalistic companies now display more self-righteousness than the people they believe had the monopoly on this in earlier periods.
Where is true freedom found? Is freedom found as an individual, or within the family, or government or within a movement? For a Christian, it is not found in ourselves, or in any human institutions, but in Christ. This is a paradox for those who focus on their own desires and promote individualism and/or personal identity as the basis for faith. For the Christian, our identity is in Christ and our freedom is not a freedom to do what we like.
And ultimately for the Christian, true freedom will be found when we are with Christ. We will be truly free from our sinful selves, but for now;
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh rather, serve one another humbly in love.” (Galatians 5: 13)
Peter Bentley is a Sydney (Australia) based writer and commentator on church, media and cultural issues. He is a former President of the Australasian Religious Press Association.