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Celebrating American Liberty in a Time of Contradictions

June 29, 1986|Martin E. Marty | Martin E. Marty, who teaches the history of American religion at the University of Chicago, is senior editor of the Christian Century. His most recent book is "Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of American Religion."

CHICAGO — To attract the Tall Ships into New York Harbor and onto our television screens takes but one good word. Ten years ago that theme word was "Bicentennial." By God, or "under God," this nation had survived for 200 years. We celebrated.

This year the Tall Ships are back. The beckoning word this time is "Liberty." Next weekend and all summer long, with the 100-year-old statue in mind, the nation is to reflect on the meaning of liberty. "Liberty Summer."

The signals that go with the Tall Ships spectacle are as mixed as other signs this summer. For obvious example, one of the dazzling vessels is the Esmeralda. It's described in the program as a "schooner-rigged, four-masted barkentine." The U.S. Senate, bidding that ship no welcome, on June 13 called it a "notorious vessel." For it can also be described as a torture ship, used in 1973 when Gen. Augusto Pinochet violently seized power in Chile. Even a prime defender of the invitation that brings the Esmeralda to our shores admits that "unspeakable scenes took place aboard." This former prison serves as cruel parody on the "Liberty" theme.

Liberty Summer presents other perplexing images. In June, Americans concentrated on Yelena Bonner. We saw tearful eyes through her thick glasses focusing on the Soviet Union, on her physicist husband, dissident Andrei Sakharov--as the doors of liberty closed behind her. Ahead: the city of Gorky, and isolation. The Soviet Union's Kruzenshtern will also be part of the Statue of Liberty party.

Liberty Summer, all summer, with front-page images from South Africa, a government suppressing press freedom that would screen them all out. Those images are much on my mind, since I hope to spend several weeks of my summer, their winter, teaching at the University of Cape Town. What will it be like where so many have lost their liberty? Will I get to meet with an acquaintance there who had been "under the ban," not at liberty, for years? How match that experience with the celebratory mood surrounding Miss Liberty? South Africa will have no ship at our Fourth of July party.

Chile. The Soviet Union. South Africa. The list of places without liberty that one calls to mind soon grows longer than the list of places that have it. All the mirrors one holds reflect back on the United States after 210 years. Why has our liberty lasted? Why is it so widely guaranteed? What will be the future of the liberties that the Statue symbolizes?

Many kinds of experts step forward with answers. Those who specialize in defense and war will give reasons rooted in the military. The economic theorists now in fashion will attribute the freedoms largely to capitalism. People in my field deal in the symbols of our culture, symbols of ideologies, religion or philosophy. We draw on them to make sense of liberty, this fragile gift, this gossamer treasure, this threatened inheritance.

For instance, why does this crowding nation still, and not always grudgingly, keep welcoming immigrants? We enjoy seeing confirmations of our liberty in the enthusiasms of the newly naturalized citizens. The statue has looked out at their kind for a century.

What about "the first liberty"--religious freedom? There are some unreasonable grumblers about encroachments on the church-state front these days but some valid test cases do lie ahead. Still, it is hard to imagine many nations like ours assuring the "free exercise" of religion.

There are reasons for concern about some trends in the courts but where else has there been so much liberty for the press and for speech as in the United States, and why have such assurances for that liberty survived here? To answer such questions the celebrators of liberty have always had to fumble for an appropriate term. It comes natural for some to say, "We lucked out." Or, as the nation's founders and many since would have it, we were "favored by a Benign Providence." History is complex; not everything is easily explained.

Lucking out or being favored had to mean that citizens could enjoy a land of vast resources. When there are so many goods to go around, people have the luxury of promoting peaceful life and liberty.

Being favored, or lucking out, however, usually applies more to humans than to natural resources. Here's where the waves upon waves of newcomers come in. Most are unwelcome at first, but they make themselves at home and are soon in the welcoming party. They had to help assure liberties in order to get and to keep them themselves. By no means has everyone been moved by generosity or vision, yet most have found the ingenuity to coexist creatively, thus enlarging the boundaries of civil freedom. To the people who now want to rule out immigrants and the infusions they bring, one has to ask in Liberty Summer: "Why jeopardize a good thing?"

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