In one of the sequels to Anne of Green Gables, the central character, Anne Shirley, mentions to her elders that she would like to live on her own when attending college and not in a dormitory (which in the 19th century was more like a convent) in order, as she put it “to have more freedom”.
The instant, predictable and universally understood response to this was:
“Freedom!! Freedom? Don’t talk like a Yankee, Anne.”
Why, right or wrong, is that word “freedom” appositive to, replaceable with, a metaphor for and an axiomatic semantic icon of America?
How is America free in a way that other countries in the so-called free world are not? I don’t know entirely. But I know one thing – that despite the madness going on today by the fanatic elements of fundamentalism, we are still constitutionally free from religion. There is no national religion, There is no national church. No one in this county has to be granted permission condescendingly by the state religion – “We allow you to have your faith. We kindly dispense you from membership our club.“ There is no official “We” of that kind in America. You are the we. I am the we. We are all a we. And thus, we are *officially* (though hardly in practice) free from the undue influence of any religion in the establishment of our laws. Freedom then is not merely individual and it is not merely collective. It is both.
As Rabbi Hillel said, "If I am not for myself, who is for me, but if I am for my own self [only], what am I?
What kind of a place is America? The ideal, the notion of America - not the transient and implausible tenancies of its leaders. Leaders come and go. The culture qua culture, the citizenry qua citizenry remain. What are its foundations, constitutional imperatives? What is its analogical matrix?
I cannot answer that. It is too large a question for one citizen. But I do know – we all know - that it is founded largely on one principle:
“Religion is a matter which lies solely between a man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship,” Thomas Jefferson said, as he helped found and forge the United States of America. “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”
What I understand the fundamental difference to be between living in America and living anywhere else is that this word freedom is a holy word - the holiness of which derives from Exodus, but which leaves it behind that wall of separation: “Let my people go.”
We are free both from the State and for the State. (“If I am for my own self only, what am I?”) And thus free to change the laws under which we live in order to make life free for all citizens, without respect to religion, something I trust will be apparent to our leaders when contemplating the right of all citizens to marry whomever they choose. We’re not free until we’re all free."
- Excerpt from Lecture Ten to my students in my class "Future Perfect: American Science Fiction Literature and Culture"
Causes Harrison Solow Supports
Lupus Foundation of America
Museum of Tolerance