I was driving earlier this week in rural New Hampshire, where I’m spending the summer, and I was passed on the road by a Chevy Tahoe from the mid-90s. The driver wore a cowboy hat and a bristling mustache, like a patch of white fire blazing forth from his upper lip. His wife sat composed and peaceful in the passenger seat to his right. As they passed, I then saw the inscription on his license plate: 68-NAM. A proud veteran of that conflict, protecting his country and the homestead upon which he’s resettled. Above the inscription was the state motto, written on every plate in this state: Live Free or Die.
This week I’ve also seen the same motto used differently. A local student was interviewed by the newspaper concerning a state vote on decriminalizing marijuana. It would only be, he said, in keeping with the state’s long-held motto: Live Free or Die.
The same libertarian motto can be invoked for very different purposes, well beyond these two examples. What, then, is the original context and meaning of it? According to the trusted online information source, Wikipedia:
The phrase comes from a toast written by General John Stark, New Hampshire’s most famous soldier of the American Revolutionary War, on July 31, 1809. Poor health forced Stark to decline an invitation to an anniversary reunion of the Battle of Bennington. Instead, he sent his toast by letter: Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.
In 1971, many surely rejoiced to see this new motto replace its predecessor, which had crowned every New Hampshire license plate up to that year: “Scenic.” It’s a nice thought. More a description of place and its undulating hills, though, than the spirit of a people!
New Hampshirites aren’t the only denizens of our ample and far-reaching country to share that spirit. Americans at large value freedom almost to the point of worship.
The song is part of what I call the American Religion, which is neither Christian nor non-Christian but a mix of things. No American ever feels free unless he or she is alone.
Since our foundations, we have been a country of Christian background, mixed with a shared thirst in striking out anew and finding our own path in life. That’s our freedom. So many other songs articulate this, whether it’s a road song like the Eagles’ “Take It Easy” or more reflective, as Bob Dylan’ “Not Dark Yet.”
We’re left wondering still, what exactly is freedom?
A classic explanation has been to divide the concept in two: there is freedom from something or for something. Of course, true freedom always involves both. Slave emancipation, for example, sought freedom from ownership by another and for the autonomy to determine one’s own life, work, family, location, etc.
America has recognized both sides of the spectrum, seen for example in The Four Freedoms proposed by FDR. In the use of the word, however, our culture may easily be slipping towards a freedom from emphasis to a fault. We do so for legitimate needs – freedom from violence, from poverty, from racism – but also for our worse trends, as with freedom from marriage commitments, from the burden of pregnancy, from listening to other points of view, etc. Mixed as this list is, we’re still left asking what are we free for? Some may answer: family, prosperity, security, opportunities… but underneath it’s often my family, my prosperity, etc. That’s not so insidious as to make for a good movie villain, a man of average and acceptable selfishness, but it’s not exactly Christian. Our freedom is often for ourselves and those of our inner circle. That’s what we first think of when we think of freedom.
In a different spirit, Paul writes to the Philippians:
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (4:8)
He’s speaking about God and about the richness of Christian life which is simply: love of God and neighbor. This is what our freedom is for, to live for God and for others, not ourselves. Freedom is God’s gift. And he gave it for one purpose: to love. That’s what it’s for. To make others the priority of our life instead of our life.
Our calling is not to “Live Free or Die,” but to really live and to really be free exactly in our dying, to self and to sin and to all false freedoms which are really varied egoisms. Only then are others built up and their freedom respected. Only then is God glorified, showing that “they are happy… who follow God’s law (Ps 119:1). We could Christianize the motto, then, in a new way: “Live Free: Die!”