Public Square

The Three-Legged Stool of Political, Economic, and Religious Freedom

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Freedom should never be taken for granted. As Christians, we cherish the inner freedom that has been made possible by Christ. But the Bible’s version of freedom involves more than just inner freedom, it involves God working out freedom and flourishing for others through us. Inner freedom should lead us to promote outer freedom. This is why many Christians cherish and fight for religious freedom, but few realize how interconnected religious freedom is with economic and political freedom, and therefore, how vital all three freedoms are for flourishing.

Why We Yearn For Freedom and Why It Matters

George Washington repeatedly referenced (about fifty times) a verse from the Bible that expressed his vision for America. It is Micah 4:4, which talks about a future where each person, “Will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid…”

Note that they will enjoy the fruits of their labors—“sit.” They will enjoy their private property —“their” vine and “their” fig tree. They will be in a protected and secure environment where “no one will make them afraid.”

This requires freedom from undue intrusion in our lives, private ownership, and freedom from fear. Preventing this intrusion requires emphasizing three principles: freedom, fulfillment, and flourishing. At IFWE, we desire to reverse the direction of the decline in economicpolitical, and religious freedom by emphasizing these three principles, which are biblically grounded and morally right.

When we lack political, economic, and religious freedom, we experience bondage and slavery in whole or in part. When we are not free to fulfill our calling, frustration results. When millions of people are not free (in whole or in part) to fulfill their callings, there is poverty.

The biblical view of freedom drives from the inside out. Inner freedom yearns for outer freedom to pursue life without undue obstruction. That’s why political, economic, and religious freedom are not contrary to the biblical perspective. In fact, the biblical perspective is conducive to political, economic, and religious freedom.

In my booklet, Free Indeed: Living Life in Light of the Biblical View of Freedom, I show why this is so and why all three are necessary for a flourishing society. The inter-relationships between the three freedoms can be described as a three-legged stool.

If you damage or eliminate one of the legs of the stool, society becomes unstable, falls over, and fails to flourish.

Without political freedom, economic freedom is precarious. It may be maintained for a while, but it is always in danger of being controlled at the whim of the ruling elite.

Without economic freedom a society will not flourish. There is a demonstrable relationship between economic freedom and life expectancy, infant mortality, the quality of health care, poverty rates, corruption levels, clean environment, civil liberties, income levels, income of the poor, happiness, child labor, and unemployment. The more economically free a society is, the better it performs in all these areas.

Another way of saying this is that socialism and Marxism are demonstrably always bad for the poor. This insight from Michael Novak’s book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, is revolutionary. There are now very extensive yearly reports that demonstrate this, giving detailed surveys of every country in the world, such as the “Economic Freedom of the World Report” and the “Heritage Freedom Index.” As these reports indicate, political freedom and economic freedom lead to a flourishing society.

Religiously based moral values—particularly biblical values—are essential, too, for a flourishing society. The third leg of the stool—religious/moral/cultural values—cannot be forgotten. A society will eventually crumble without a solid, religiously-based moral foundation. Political freedom could become anarchy, or a majority of people and their representatives could somehow inexplicably vote for something that is evil. A politically free nation can only rise as high as the character of those involved.

Economic freedom without religiously-based moral foundation could also be harmful if it is not checked by the rule of law and the informed consciences of those who do business. A lack of religious freedom could lead to a society that refuses to allow the prophetic input of religiously-based moral values. Richard Neuhaus argued in his classic book The Naked Public Square that such a society could be a disaster.

All these things have been argued in numerous books and articles, and we could profit from rehearsing the things many have discovered. However, in the rest of this book we will try to develop a biblical framework for all three legs of the stool. The Bible does not prescribe a particular form of government or a particular economic system or even a particular view on the (non)establishment of religion. But the biblical perspective does contain principles conducive to political, economic, and religious/moral freedom.

Why We Need to Support the Three-Legged Stool

As Christians, we need to go back to the source—the Bible—and look anew at the biblical view of freedom. A survey of both the Old and New Testaments reveals that the Bible points toward both inner and outer freedom as an ideal state. Freedom matters in scripture and it should matter to us.

The Bible also has some important things to say about government, even though it doesn’t mandate one form of government over another. Although God has ordained government, the Bible limits its function and repeatedly warns about government taking over more of our life and freedoms. When human power becomes too concentrated, there is always the real danger that sin will corrupt and lead to disastrous results.

If we believe that biblical values can lead to a flourishing society, then we need to promote them. That means being informed, speaking up when necessary, voting our conscience, and continuing to advocate for freedom in all three spheres—political, economic, and religious—and remember that without one of the legs of the “freedom” stool, the rest will fall.


Editor’s note: Read more about the implications of a biblical view of freedom in Free Indeed: Living Life in Light of the Biblical View of Freedom.

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