Yesterday afternoon, Pastor Walter Mitty and Fr. Bob Sullivan got together for coffee at Bernie Rolvaag’s History/Herstory Book Store.

After telling his ecumenical friend about his overnight trip to see Susan and his two nephews, Mitty asked, “Bob, why is it that Evangelicals seem to have a corner on the patriotism market?”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well, did you happen to see Johnny Christian’s Let Freedom Ring Fourth of July Special Sunday evening? I’ve never seen so many American flags in my whole life. They were waving on the two big screens flanking the podium. There must have been 50 standing side by side on the podium, and each of the 2,000 people in the audience had their own little to flag to wave back and forth in unison as they belted out “Oh beautiful, for spacious skies.”

“Oh, now I know what you mean. Members of St. Mary’s who vote Democratic will put up Hate Has No Home Here signs on their front lawns, but they’d never put God Bless America stickers on their bumpers.”

“Even though, if they thought about it,” Mitty added as he got up to put a little more cream in his coffee, “they might say those very words in the prayers at Mass.”

When Mitty returned to their table, Fr. Bob noticed that his friend’s coffee was noticeably whiter and began to say, “And you said that the theme of the TV special was Let Freedom …”

Pastor Mitty was unable to hear the end of Fr. Bob’s sentence, because a pack of five 2147 cc V-Twin Harleys roared by outside on Main Street making it impossible to hear.

After they had passed, Fr. Sullivan looked around to make sure no one was within earshot and muttered, “Damn bikers. Someone needs to make a law to put mufflers on those machines.”

“So, what were you saying?”

“I was saying,” Fr. Bob repeated, “that Evangelicals seem to be in love with the word freedom and I was going to say something about their opinions regarding cancel culture and critical race theory and political correctness.”

This time Fr. Bob was interrupted by the bookstore’s owner. “OK if I join you? It’s a slow day in the bookstore and the coffee shop, so I can add my two cents to the discussion. What problem are you guys solving today?”

“We just started talking about freedom,” said Mitty. 

The bookstore owner laughed. “Independence Day weekend, what could be a more appropriate topic?”

Fr. Bob was going to get started on the topic of freedom when he was drowned out, this time by the thump-thump blaring from oversize speakers competing for attention with the roar coming out of what were euphemistically referred to as mufflers in a Dodge Charger high rise quan-car with mag wheels passing by on Main St.

“There oughta be a law,” the priest muttered when the noise got far enough down Poplar Park’s main drag that he could be heard again.

“So you think that guy shouldn’t have the freedom to express himself?” asked Bernie with a wink.

Getting Bernie’s point, the Franciscan paused to organize his thoughts.

The bookstore owner took advantage of the pause to add what he called his “two cents.” 

“Seems to me that whenever we talk about freedom we have to add the words, ‘from what.’ Progressive women want to be free from the government telling them they can’t have an abortion and conservatives want to have the freedom to not wear face masks. What’s more, Mark Zuckerberg irritates the hell out of them when he tells them what they can and cannot say on Facebook.”

“Your point, Bernie,” Fr. Bob began, “made me think about how my dad talked about the ’60s, how what we would call liberals these days rebelled against everything authorities told them to do. They grew beards and long hair. Girls stopped wearing bras and wore what they called unisex clothing. Conformity, for them, was a four letter word.”

“My dad had an eight-track tape by the Five Man Electrical Band,” Bernie added. “He knew all the words:

Sign, sign

Everywhere a sign

Blockin’ out the scenery

Breakin’ my mind

Do this, don’t do that

Can’t you read the sign?

Fr. Bob remembered the song, shook his head and said, “So what you’re implying is that those nonconformist hippies have grown older, acquired political power, and now they’re telling everyone what to do — regarding the environment, face masks, the economy, racism.”

The three friends sat in silence for several minutes, sipping coffee and pondering.

Finally, Bernie said, “I have two books on my shelf. You all remember Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom?”

“That’s the one, if I’m not mistaken,” said Mitty, “in which Fromm argues that we humans have an ambivalent relationship with freedom. That freedom brings with it a scary accountability resulting in loneliness and a feeling of insignificance, and that’s why people are willing to relinquish their freedom to demagogues like Hitler.”

“And the other,” said Bernie, “is Bowling Alone.”

“I see where you’re going,” said Fr. Bob. “Putnam argues that in pursuing the freedom of extreme individualism we are being disconnected from social structures which we need as social beings. That we, so to speak, have thrown the baby out with the bathwater of conformity.” 

“That makes me think,” said Mitty, “if Fromm is right that human authorities are not able to resolve our problematic ambivalence regarding freedom and Putnam is correct that we as individuals are not doing a very good job of finding our way through life either, maybe we need the best and wisest among us to draft something new, a Declaration of Interdependence.”

Tom Holmes writes a column for our sister publication, the Forest Park Review.

Join the discussion on social media!

Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...