“Freedom” vs. “Liberty”: Why Religious Conservatives Have Begun to Favor One Over the Other

Photo courtesy of Flickr user pgil under Creative Commons 2.0.

In 2012, the GOP party platform mentioned “religious freedom” six times. Its section on the First Amendment was titled “The First Amendment: The Foresight of Our Founders to Protect Religious Freedom.”

In 2016, religious freedom was again used six times, only this time it was joined by four mentions of “religious liberty,” and the First Amendment section was renamed “The First Amendment: Religious Liberty.”

In the wake of last summer’s Obergefell decision, states and municipalities across the country have proposed and passed laws to protect certain religiously-based views on marriage, gender and abortion. Depending on your political orientation, they’re either a defense of religious freedom or a dog-whistle for anti-LGBT views.

In most circles, “religious freedom” and “religious liberty” are interchangeable, but to call them identical wouldn’t quite be right. The words liberty and freedom have different origins, and they have slightly different connotations in the context of American political and cultural history. The GOP’s shift, whether intentional or not, represents the gradual re-embrace of liberty by religious conservatives, and it’s worth taking note of.

Liberty and freedom have never meant exactly the same thing, in large part because, as noted above, they have different ancestries; liberty comes from Latin, while freedom comes from German/Old English. The two merged after the Norman Invasion, and it took 1000 years for them to approach each other in meaning.

Political theorist Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, in her 1988 essay “Are Freedom and Liberty Twins?”, wrote that freedom “is more likely to be holistic, to mean a total condition or state of being,” whereas liberty “is more likely to be plural and piecemeal.” Another way of putting it: freedom is the capacity to do things in the world, while liberty is the absence of external institutional constraints.

In the era of the American Revolution, liberty reigned supreme. For the founders, liberty was the “fundamental American value,” and liberty remained the dominant word in the country’s political lexicon until the 20th century, according to Geoffrey D. Nunberg, a linguist who teaches at the UC Berkeley School of Information. Even today, liberty still has 18th century connotations. “It’s a word that wears a three-corner hat,” said Nunberg.

Following its starring role in the Declaration of Independenceliberty has slowly slipped out of common usage. By the middle of the 20th century, the United States was solidly the land of freedom, its politics marked by turf battles over the proper use of the word—from the Freedom Riders to Operation Iraqi Freedom (although, as many pointed out after several uses of “Operation Iraqi Liberation” by Ari Fleischer, that would have made for an unfortunate acronym).

But now, after a century-long hiatus, liberty is back.

And the Republican platform isn’t the only place the word is popping up. As Geoffrey Nunberg astutely observed, Ted Cruz gave a shout-out to Ronald Reagan when he declared his presidential candidacy at Liberty University in 2015. But unlike the Gipper, who spoke only of freedom, Cruz used the word liberty thirteen times.

The shift back to liberty has also been championed by the Tea Party and popular libertarians like Ron Paul, who launched his Campaign for Liberty and affiliated student group Young Americans for Liberty during the 2008 presidential campaign.

BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith picked up on this shift 2014 when he made the case for a reclassification of conservatives into two groups—liberty conservatives and freedom conservatives. “Liberty Conservatives look, first of all, to America’s founding document,” Smith wrote, while “Freedom Conservatives are as likely to look to Lincoln as to the founders, and they may admit to having ancestors who voted for Franklin Roosevelt and marched for civil rights.”

Part of the reason liberty has so much appeal is it hasn’t been tainted by the political battles of the 20th century. “Liberty is so rarely used in contemporary political discourse that it’s a word one side can step in and claim for themselves,” observed Nunberg.

But the word’s embrace by the religious right has a second, equally important explanation.

During its heyday in the 18th century,  the political concept of liberty was intertwined with a moral and Christian liberty, seen as “the capacity to act according to an ethical standard,” according to Columbia University historian Eric Foner. British minister Jonathan Boucher, who lived in the colonies, preached in 1775 that true liberty is “a liberty to do every thing that is right, and being restrained from doing anything that is wrong.”

Liberty, defined as freedom of conscience, has always been linked to Christianity. In fact, liberty always had greater ties to religion and morality than its cousin. As Pitkin explained in her 1988 essay, “The liber- family so much emphasized the capacity to choose (virtue or) sin, that some of its words actually designated sinful conduct: agnosticism, conduct in pursuit of the passions, lecherous or gluttonous conduct, as in the modern ‘libertine.’”

Over time, the definitions of religious freedom and religious liberty have expanded to include the protection of non-Christian religious practices and beliefs, but their Christian origins haven’t been forgotten.

In 2009, a group of Catholic, Evangelical and Orthodox Christian leaders signed the Manhattan Declaration, a manifesto that laid the groundwork for the latest round of the culture war over religious freedom and liberty. In the declaration, the leaders affirmed their support for the “sanctity of life,” traditional marriage and “religious liberty, which is grounded in the character of God, the example of Christ, and the inherent freedom and dignity of human beings created in the divine image.” In the entire declaration, the term “religious liberty” is used five times while “religious freedom” comes up only once.

In its alliance with evangelicals, the leadership of the Catholic church in the U.S. has trumpeted the First Amendment as the most important one. “If our obligations and duties to God are impeded, or even worse, contradicted by the government, then we can no longer claim to be a land of the free, and a beacon of hope for the world,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says on its website.

By reclaiming liberty, members of the religious right are reclaiming a world in which Christianity provided the moral structure for the founding of the nation.

The United States’ regime of religious freedom is divided into two categories—those freedoms protected by the Establishment Clause and those protected by the right to Free Exercise. Current battles over the limits of religious liberty mostly concern the latter.

To be sure, many of the latest religious freedom bills are called just that—religious freedom bills. That’s partly due to the 1993 federal law they’re modeled after: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. But liberty is showing up more and more in courthouses and legislatures across the country, and it’s the word favored by supporters of the First Amendment Defense Act.

RD spoke with a number of legal scholars who agreed that liberty is the language of exemption, of freedom from government intervention.

“You might think of a regime of religious freedom as one in which the government is studiously neutral, whereas a regime of liberty would be one in which people are free to practice their own religion to the maximum possible extent,” explained Michael McConnell, director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School.

Steven Green, a law professor at Willamette University and the author of Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding said that liberty suggests a “defensive response.”

“I think you could say we are all free, but what does free mean? It’s such a general concept,” said Green, noting that liberty can have more immediate and personal connotations, when spoken to the right audience. “That word seems to resonate with a particular segment of society,” he said. It’s very clear which segment that is. Over the past ten years, lobby groups on the religious right have latched onto “religious liberty” as a code for this particular sensibility.

To be sure, these groups also routinely appeal to religious freedom. But, as recent linguistic shifts have shown, the word liberty brings something extra to the table.

“When people talk about religious freedom, they may be talking about the right of everybody to practice their religion, or the right to refuse service to people whose sexual proclivities they find disgusting,” said Geoffrey Nunberg. “If somebody talks about religious liberty, they’re only talking about the latter.”