President Ronald Reagan loved liberty. He eloquently saluted fallen soldiers whose deaths preserved freedom.
Ironically, the lens through which Reagan magnified liberty had a narrow focus. Its benefits extended to citizens who already possessed economic freedom and denied liberty’s gifts to those who needed it most — the poor, the uninsured and single parent families living from paycheck to paycheck.
Reagan’s liberty was essentially individualistic and private. He cherished freedom which built strong traditional families, cultivated religious morality, inspired economic advance and produced stout-hearted patriots shielded from government intrusion.
Who didn’t share in Reagan’s liberty? Citizens working at lower-paying jobs. Youngsters participating in Head Start. Those who ride buses to get medical care from government-sponsored clinics. Reagan overlooked such citizens. His liberty appealed to residents of gated communities who depended on few government services.
Reagan gave an outstanding speech on liberty when he observed the 40th anniversary of D-Day on June 6, 1984. He made Americans feel proud of their World War II military heroes who died that our nation might live. His speech still sends chills down my spine, especially when I saw Pointe du Hoc, the 100-foot high rocky cliff that German artillery controlled. GIs from the Ranger Battalion crawled up rope ladders into a hail of German bullets. With heroic resolve matched by shed blood, these soldiers knocked out artillery hid in concrete bunkers. If not destroyed, then the German Command would have shelled D-Day beaches and trapped Allied soldiers.
President Reagan spoke to buddies of these valiant dead warriors. “You were young the day you took those cliffs. Yet, you risked everything here. Why ... We look at you and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief (and) loyalty and love ... . You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for ... . All of you loved liberty.”
What did President Reagan mean by “liberty”? Its meaning isn’t simple. Nor does a set definition of freedom prevail. Freedom’s composition is like a rope wound with many strands of meaning. Columbia University’s historian Eric Foner regards liberty as a “tale of debates, disagreements and struggles rather than a set of timeless categories.” Freedom defies a common definition most Americans endorse.
“ ... I view it,” Foner writes, “as an ‘essentially contested concept,’ one that by its very nature is the subject of disagreement. Use of such a concept automatically presupposes an ongoing dialogue with other competing meanings.”
What was Reagan’s take on the freedom he memorably expressed at Pointe du Hoc? Later, he spoke of a massive “crusade” to preserve freedom by honoring traditional values, cultivating patriotic pride and restoring personal resolve that made the U.S. great.
Cobbling together conservative Republicans, business titans, Christian evangelicals, right-wing special interest groups and southern Democrats demoralized with their party, Reagan used liberty as a rallying cry. Lower taxes, limited government, business deregulation, anti-union agitation, reduced welfare spending and a beefed-up military framed Reagan’s picture of liberty.
Using charm, wit and endearing speaking skills, he deftly redefined freedom from how President Franklin Roosevelt understood it. FDR convinced citizens that we fought against totalitarianism in World War II to preserve four freedoms — freedom of speech and worship, freedom from want and fear for refugees overseas and the impoverished at home. This slant on freedom echoed a biblical credo that a “righteous person knows the just cause of the poor” (Proverbs 29:7).
“Reagan’s Revolution” proclaimed a “new birth of freedom.” He lopped from Lady Liberty’s hand FDR’s freedoms from want and fear. In their place, Reagan inserted can-do entrepreneurial spirit. His America liberty thrived on scrappy individuals who succeeded.
In 1987, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce invited President Reagan to give an Independence Day speech at the Jefferson Memorial. He offered an Economic Bill of Rights that guaranteed four fundamental freedoms: The freedom to work. The freedom to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. The freedom to own and control one’s property. The freedom to participate in a free market.
Missing are FDR’s freedoms from want and fear. Reagan’s liberty appealed to citizens who lived comfortably because they benefited from American enterprise. He avoided the plight of the poor trying to escape from want and fear.
Ironic that President Reagan delivered this speech at the Jefferson Memorial. Columbia University’s historian Foner reminds us that Jefferson paid little attention to freedom’s social demands because his emphasis on individuals striving to succeed was so strong. “Thomas Jefferson, as is well-known, owned over one hundred slaves at the time he wrote the immortal lines affirming the inalienable right to liberty (in the Declaration of Independence), and everything he cherished in his own manner of life, from lavish entertainments to the leisure that made possible the pursuit of arts and sciences, ultimately rested on slave labor.”
Sadly, liberty’s verbal defenders — Jefferson and Reagan — limited rather than expanded it.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling.