In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on!


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Book Review: The Miracle of Freedom

Individual freedom, democracy, and the rule of law are under wider assault in the West, including the USA, than at any time since at least World War II. In Europe, especially the United Kingdom (formerly known as "Great" Britain), an irresistible tide of political correctness has led to the suffocation of personal freedom under national and local laws "protecting" (read: promoting) favored interest groups such as homosexuals and atheists, as well as to a paralysis of police and the courts to deal effectively with mobs of "protesters" and a horde of immigrants demanding the adoption of "sharia law." In the United States, we have a federal administration bent on seizing and expending (directly and indirectly) unprecedented, ever-growing amounts of private wealth; requiring individual citizens to purchase products and services they do not want; extending government surveillance and control to every aspect of citizens' lives; declaring and implementing its own policies through executive order regardless of Congressional will; and going to war against the states to prevent them from dealing with critical problems of immigration, health care, environmental control, education, and threats to the family such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

These developments would be more actively resisted if citizens better appreciated how dearly bought, and how fragile and fleeting, freedom and democracy have been in history. Providing that awareness is the mission of authors Chris and Ted Stewart in their recent book The Miracle of Freedom: Seven Tipping Points That Saved the World (available from publisher Deseret Books and from, among other outlets). Released in June, 20011, the book has been as high as to No. 2 on Amazon's best-selling list and reached No. 11 on the New York Times' Top 25 best-selling nonfiction and e-book lists.

According to the authors, less than 5 percent of all people who have ever lived on the earth (and most of those being persons who are still alive today) have lived under conditions that today could be considered “free.” The "miracle" is that there have even been that many, given the terrible weight of flawed human nature throughout history.

The authors define "freedom and democracy" according to the following five criteria: self-government; fundamental rights; equal dignity and opportunity of persons; commitment to justice; and commitment to the rule of law. The authors then discern from the human record a series of critical events or "forks in the road" that, had they happened differently or not at all, would or could have resulted in the extinction of any hope that the ideals of freedom and self-government might be realized.
  • The defeat of the Assyrians in their quest to destroy the kingdom of Judah
  • The victory of the Greeks over the Persians at Thermopylae and Salamis
  • Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity
  • The defeat of the armies of Islam at Poitiers
  • The failure of the Mongols in their effort to conquer Europe
  • The discovery of the New World
  • The Battle of Britain in World War II
The book describes and analyzes these events, each chapter accompanied by a fictionalized but well-written and engaging "you are there" portrait of individuals at the time--most of them common people--who might have participated in or been immediately affected by these events. In addition to a concise narration of what transpired, each chapter explores what led up to and resulted from the event, and how the future of human liberty would have been changed--or snuffed out altogether--had the outcome been different. Some of these positive outcomes were fantastically improbable, such as the survival of Judah against the Assyrian onslaught, the Greeks' defeat of the Persian hosts at Thermopylae and Salamis, and even Britain's triumph against the mighty Luftwaffe in 1941-1942. As the authors observe, "Many of these critical forks in the road occurred thousands of years before the event would bear the fruit of freedom. Some have happened in modern day. All of them were necessary for the world to enjoy the sudden expansion of free governments that we see today."

Chris and Ted Stewart

The authors' selection of these historical "tipping points" seems driven by the correct premise that the concepts of freedom and democracy--as they came down to us over the generations and as we understand and enjoy them today--sprang from the marriage of Judaic theology and Greek philosophy. Thus, the extinction of those early civilizations or of their successors in Europe would have prevented the survival and realization of these ideals in modern times. Inevitably, minds clouded by conventional and politically-correct views will complain that historical Judaism and Christianity bred regimes that made endless war and often cruelly oppressed, rather than liberated, individuals (free-thinkers, women, and homosexuals, for example) and colonial peoples as well as their own. The authors of Miracle of Freedom do not dispute the guilt of those Western "leaders" who perverted Judeo-Christian principles to serve selfish ends, but stress that the fault lay not with the principles themselves, or with the cultures that spawned them, but with the inescapable flaws of human nature:
[T]hough they may seek to represent the ideal, no nation or institution is ever pefect. All cultures and religious institutions are occupied by mere mortals, making them subject to all the frailties of men. And the simple fact that they do seek the ideal, ironically, opens them up to charges of hypocrisy and scorn. Second, often these are not only multigenerational but multimillenial institutions. Their stories may stretch over thousands of years. During the passing of so many centuries, every nation or institution will have its ups and downs, experiencing high points of moral leadership, but low points of decadence as well.

This being the case, wouldn't it be unfair--and historically inaccurate--to judge a nation or institution on only one episode in its history or during one particular span of time?

In our story, we also have to recognize the difference between the leaders or members of the Christian faith and Christian doctrine. The shortcomings of one may not accurately reflect the value of the other. Indeed, history shows that there have been times when the teachings of Christianity remained an ally to the development of freedom even when the Christian church did not.
Reading The Miracle of Freedom, one is struck by how improbable was the birth, survival, and eventual flourishing of freedom and self-government; how long that process took; how much it owed to the heroism and self-sacrifice of a relative few individuals; and how fragile those ideals are in a world ever tending to corruption and madness. As Mssrs. Stewart point out:
[D]emocracy and freedom are very fleeting—they can be possessed and then lost. A nation might be democratic for a period of time and then, through spasms of internal strife or war, revert to despotism. Over the past 225 years this has been shown again and again to be true, the tides of democracy causing many nations to sample and then lose the great gifts of freedom and democracy. The experience of Germany prior to World War I, immediately thereafter, and then during the reign of Hitler is a graphic example of this truth.
For those of us living in the United States, a nation that has experienced more than two hundred years of unparalleled liberty, it is easy to take for granted the extraordinary gifts we have been given. And for most of us, it is much easier to become lackadaisical about these gifts than it is for the inhabitants of other nations who are forced to struggle every day in their battle for liberty. In fact, unless we are serious students of world history, or have traveled extensively, we might not recognize how unique the blessings of liberty actually are.
We should all remember this lesson, in this time of grave peril to liberty here in the USA and around the world.

The Miracle of Freedom is written with the common person, not the professional historian, in mind (though it certainly can appeal to the latter). Most of it reads more like a historical novel than an analytical text. It is an absorbing and highly informative work, and would make an excellent Christmas or Hanukkah gift.

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