There are people in the world who never have a choice in their leader. A military strong man or his son dictates what is right and what is wrong. All of them, every single one in history, has gotten rich (or at least comfortable) by exploiting the people they govern.
Our country is different. We have the gift of voting for our leaders. Sure, we don't like our choices sometimes. At election time people say their choice is the lesser of two evils. Voting for the lesser of two evils still beats having no choice at all.
Even in some highly developed countries, you have no choice about religion. You are not free to worship the god you choose. You are forced to bow in prayer with all your peers or pay taxes to support a place of worship. It was two early Baptists who wrote to Thomas Jefferson about the need to have a free exercise of religion. They remembered the religious wars of Europe and wanted no part of bloody battles in Jesus' name. We tend to forget that the Christian God, embodied in Jesus, refused to force anyone to follow him. He invited people to follow; he did not force their allegiance. Freedom to believe or believe differently or disbelieve — these are gifts.
I have visited countries where television, radio and newspapers were under government control. Whenever that happens, truth is the first casualty. What I heard and read told a story that everything was perfect, everything was under control. Nothing is ever that perfect. Freedom of the press means commentators, editors and bloggers can get a lot wrong. But it also means there is a freedom to tell the truth. Truth sets you free; lies keep you captive.
There is a lot of debate in our country about gun control. Do people abuse the Second Amendment? Yes, they do. Do people abuse most of the freedoms granted us in our Constitution and Bill of Rights? Yes, they do. I know the ultimate answer to gun violence is changing people's hearts. Frankly, I think Second Amendment advocates ought to be fervent witnesses for the gospel. But I have also been in countries where owning a gun is illegal. This is a bit like saying "Guns are powerful. Therefore, guns are bad." Maybe it's better to say with great power comes great responsibility. The power of owning a gun should not be a casual thing. The freedom to own a gun carries hefty responsibility.
I'm not naive; I know our justice system is not pure. Nothing invented by man is pure. For all its faults, however, I cannot think of any system on Earth that's better. We sometimes belittle criminal rights. But I'm glad I have the right to have an attorney present during questioning. If I can't make myself understood to my own wife at times, there's a pretty good chance I would mess up talking to a police officer. There are countries where you can be arrested, thrown in jail and kept there until you die. No trial means no hope. Your rights before the bar of justice are a gift.
Maybe the freedom we most take for granted is limited government. The 10th Amendment states: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." The negative legacy of this amendment was the use of "states' rights" to justify discrimination and deny civil rights. But the positive legacy of this amendment is this: Our government has to live within boundaries. We do not live in an oppressive state like North Korea, where the government has the right to tell you who to marry, where to live, what to do for a living, what you should value and who you must worship. I grew up with folks who would say they didn't like "the guv'ment messing in our bidness." We have no idea what it is like to live in a thought-controlled state.
I believe we have been given these gifts for a divine reason. We live in a nation that enjoys the greatest freedoms ever given to people. These gifts of freedom must be protected and respected. Part of caring for these gifts means we will not use our freedom to rob other people of their freedoms. Like all good gifts, we must know the true value of our freedoms. Their value is not just based on men and women who fought and died for these freedoms. Their value is based on their uniqueness. They are God's special gift to the United States of America.
In Mrs. Turnipseed's kindergarten class, we started every morning with the Pledge of Allegiance and singing "My Country 'Tis of Thee." As best I remember, the first words of the song sounded to my 5-year-old ears like "My Country Gift to Me." I was correct in my understanding, if flawed in my singing. Our country, our freedom is a gift. Tell God "Thank you." Be wise stewards of your freedom. Respect how other people use their freedoms. Pass these freedom gifts on to your children and grandchildren.
Remember the gift of freedom, the gift of this country is not automatic. Like any gift, if you don't take care of it, it breaks. Broken freedom creates a terrible place to live.
Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.
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