We live in a theocracy, and Freedom is our God. The nation’s most famous port, New York Harbor, houses a statue dedicated to this principle. A replica of the Liberty Bell serves as a similar reminder on the Mississippi Capitol grounds, and on our own campus, a new center designated to the “study of American freedom” is being established. But these are only fragments of a broader story.
At the same port as the Statue of Liberty, we should remember the hundreds of Jewish refugees turned away in 1942 on the S.S. Drottningholm. Alongside the Liberty Bell replica at our Capitol, we should notice Belle Kenney’s monument to the women of the Confederacy, questioning the purpose it serves and the roles they played. And on the same campus as this newfound center, we see buildings named for slaveholders and should question how their legacies related to freedom. Here, there is a disconnect between the world we live in and the stories we tell ourselves about it.
The reason so many are willing to look past this disconnect is because freedom has become a religion: complete with icons, symbols, rituals and evangelists. Sometimes, however, freedom is falsely evoked, serving no other purpose than to justify harm. To the Statue of Freedom atop the U.S. Capitol: your name is being taken in vain.
With mask mandates being enforced and vaccination mandates being called for by both the faculty senate and the Associated Student Body Senate, resistance to this perceived overreach has taken many forms, from a protest outside Baptist Memorial Hospital to calls for a “mask-off walk” through the Grove. However distinct in form these protests may be, they have a common message: they want freedom, and they feel that theirs is being taken away.
What those who protest these restrictions often ignore is the way in which they contradict their own principles. By antagonizing local music venues for mandating COVID-19 precautions at their events, you contradict the belief that private businesses are free to do what they want. By claiming to be “for life” and commenting your support on a petition that will put many at risk, you reveal a conflict of values.
More importantly than this threat to principles, however, is the real-world threat this reverence for freedom poses to our physical safety. The effectiveness of masks and vaccines is known, with seemingly infinite evidence for this claim. It should come as no surprise, then, that when the faculty senate voted on a campus-wide vaccine mandate, there was no opposition from the Department of Chemistry or School of Pharmacy. Those who still dissent see this and ignore it. Freedom has become their capital T Truth.
Freedom is a beloved value toward which we should strive, but we do not need to put it above all else. Even in the U.S. — a country with a lot to say about freedom — our own Declaration of Independence puts it second to life. We can treat it with respect without treating it with religious reverence. But even if you refuse to denounce this faith, there is room for agreement. Maybe freedom is the end-all-be-all good, but if it is, we need to take it seriously. Call for freedom loudly when you see it threatened, but be sure to be right.
Spencer Heitman is a junior philosophy, English and public policy leadership triple major from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.