Liberty Follows the Fashions


By REV. FRANK S. MEAD, Associate Editor of Christian Herald

Over Station EMBC, March 16, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 366-368.

PUBLICITY is out for a brand-new dictionary which, the publishers say, you simply must buy unless you want to be considered an ignoramus. I almost bought it, to save myself from that fate, until I read the publicity. Then I didn't buy it, for I discovered that there was just a bit of ignorance in the dictionary-makers. They challenged me: "Can you define the new words—blitzkrieg, fuselage, Axis?" Those words are not new. Blitzkrieg is older than Bismark; fuselage is as old as the Wright brothers, and Axis is as old as the stars of heaven.

An axis, in astronomy, is a geometric line around which a body revolves. In geography, it is the imaginary line drawn straight through the heart of this spinning earth. In preaching and lecturing it is the central text or theme around which moves the whole discourse. And an eight-grade schoolboy can tell you what Axis means, politically. Here it has come to mean that body of thought prevalent in Rome, Berlin and Tokyo; the aim of the Axis leaders is nothing else than to make the whole world shift speed and direction, and move as they direct. I believe that will not work.

I think it will not remain the axis of human life even inthe ghastly event that Hitler should win, for it runs directly counter to ten thousand years of human progress. This is a crooked Axis; trace it, between those three cities, on your map; it is not a straight line. It runs through Russia and China, and any man who thinks he can take the 500 million people in China and make them behave in Peking as he behaves in Rome has another think coming. It is unnatural, and unscientific, and inhuman.

It is an axis built in defiance of truth, and I think it will collapse of its own weight. But because that collapse does not mean that humanity will be set adrift, rudderless and lost. There will come a new Axis, when this thing is over. Let's don't kid ourselves that we will ever accept the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo axis, or that we will ever go back to what we were before Hitler and Mussolini and Konoye came along. We'll never go back. A new design for living is as inevitable as the rising and the falling of the sun. This new Axis will be based on—what?

Well, I hear men calling back from the grave an old, old challenge that once turned the blood of other men to living flame. It was the cry, in substance, of the Yankee rebels

behind the Concord wall; it was the cry of the regiments of starvation that lifted red cockades above the barricades of Paris. I saw it recently on the wall against which they shot the fanatics of the French Commune; I saw it in the Place de la Concorde, where they guillotined Robespierre; I saw it in the House of Deputies and on the side of the old Bastile. It is still there, on half the walls of Paris, come storm and wind and rain and Revolution, three words that shook the world: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity! Get back to that, men say, and we shall find security and peace. Maybe so. And maybe not.


Will you understand me when I say that glorious and blood-born as they are, that neither liberty, equality or fraternity, alone, are enough? It was French Madame Roland who stood before a statue of Liberty in the streets of Paris and said, "Ah, Liberty, what crimes have been committed in thy name!" She was right. Liberty at times has become the very excuse for the denial of liberty; it has meant freedom for some, slavery for others. Let me illustrate that.

Delaware was settled in 1623 by a group of liberty-loving, God-fearing Dutchmen who built a fort near Philadelphia. To build that fort they had to drive away a lot of Algonquin Indians. There wasn't much "liberty" in that procedure for the red men, was there? Then came the Swedes—who had another idea of liberty—and who drove off the Dutch. And then the British moved in and drove out the Swedes; they stayed until a man named Washington came along with a Continental army shouting "Outside, Englishmen!" It all fell under the head of liberty. And so long as we have Dutch to chase Indians, and Swedes to chase Dutch, and British to chase Swedes and Americans to chase Englishmen, all in the name of their particular and peculiar concepts of liberty, you are going to have a denial of the liberty of one or the other.

In the year 1740, these Delaware Dutchmen, to protect their religious liberties, passed laws against their Sabbath-breakers. They branded as malefactors all who "perform any worldly employment, labor or business on the Sabbath Day (works of necessity and charity excepted)." Probably they were right when they passed those laws; the times called for them. But in the year 1941, in the name of a still larger liberty, the policemen of Wilmington were called out to arrest those who would have been Sabbath-breakers under the Dutchmen of 1741; they rounded up milkmen, bus-drivers, newspaper-dealers, drug-store clerks; they arrested one good public-spirited citizen who was shovelling snow off his sidewalk; they even threatened to pinch a radio technician who was broadcasting a sermon from the West Presbyterian Church! (There's a disturbing thought for you; nobody works harder than the preachers on Sunday, and you just can't catalogue a lot of their sermons under the head of "charity and necessity", either.)

No—liberty is no constant value. It follows the fashions, the times. Absolute liberty is still in the realm of dreams. You're never sure of what it means, from one year to the next. It doesn't mean the same thing to an American that it means to a Chinese; religious liberty does not mean the same thing to Jehovah's Witnesses that it means to the Presbyterian and the Roman Catholic. Judge Fake had it right, some time ago, when he said that no law had ever been passed that did not deny some individual liberty, somewhere. Liberty, God bless her, cannot handle the job alone.


All right, some men say, get liberty plus equality, and you have it! Maybe so—but look before you leap there, too.

It would be nice—very, very nice, if we were actually all born equal, and acted that way. It just happens that we're not. Shakespeare was saying something nice when he said, "Mean and mighty, rotting together, men are one dust . . ." but The Bard was speaking of men equal after they were dead, not as they lived. Longfellow was nearer the truth when he said, "For some must follow, and some command, Though all are made of clay." Something seems to get into different clays that makes us different.

You wouldn't say, would you, that we are all born equal mentally? I have seen twins, born on the same day of the same mother; one of them played a piano beautifully before she was eight years old, and the other couldn't have played it if she had taken lessons until she was eighty. It just wasn't there. You wouldn't say that we are all equal physically. Some babies die almost before they see the light of day, slaughtered by their father's diseases. There is that late heir to the throne of Spain who was a life-long sufferer from his inherited hemophilia; and there is Joe Louis, with his elephant's brain and his elephant's physique. We are equal spiritually, in the sight of God, and that's about all.

You see, when you speak of equality, you have to determine whether to get that equality you are going to level humanity up, or down. When the French Revolution had been won by the rabble-army, they took a harlot and crowned her as the Goddess of Reason and paraded her through the streets. They wanted to level reason and intelligence down to harlot-level. But it had to come that the reins had to be given back from those lower levels of society to a new aristocracy of leadership brains. That was levelling up. Up and down—this has been history's seesaw, and we shall go on seesawing until we are smart enough and courageous enough and Christian enough to organize the efforts of men around the more reasonable axis of fraternity, understanding, education, and tolerance.

When General Washington died at Mount Vernon, the slaves in the slave-quarters out back of his mansion set up a moaning that could be heard for miles. Critics have leaped at that. "There you are," they say. "The champion of liberty himself was a slave-owner." He was. But he set every last one of those slaves free, on his deathbed, with the words, "The black American must become a part of our fraternity of freemen." He knew that liberty had not yet unfurled her wings in America, that she would not do so for perhaps another hundred years. He knew that the childish slaves in his slave-cabins were not the equal of the master of that Potomac plantation. But in the name of the coming fraternity of freemen, he at least made a start!

At least, bewildered and cynical and discouraged as we are over the denials of liberty and the failures of equality in our world, we can make a start. Freedom is a coquette, constantly changing her face and her clothes; equality is a thousand years away, and perhaps more. But fraternity! That can be now. We can start there.

A cousin of mine once got a job teaching the children in a Binet school; that, as you may know, is a school for backward children. She had youngsters who couldn't keep up; youngsters who were mentally deficient. She had one who was the No. 1 joke even of his fellow-Binetians. He would go to the blackboard to read a lesson, and read foolishness that wasn't there, while the class roared. The teacher suddenly realized what was the matter. She asked the youngster to pick out individual letters in the words he was trying to read. He couldn't see them. He wouldn't pick the letters out, for he needed glasses. He got glasses—and a few years ago he graduated as top scholar in the city's high schools, with a four-year scholarship to the state university in his pocket. All he needed was glasses.

That is all a lot of us need. Are you one of those half-blind Americans who look at those who are not American and say, "Huh. A foreigner. He's different from me. I can't see him, or his way of doing things, at all!" Do you laugh at the Japanese for eating while he sits cross-legged on the floor. Don't laugh. That's a lot more sensible than sitting on mahogany chairs we can't afford; to me it's a lot more sensible than trying to sit on a lot of this antique stuff that you're afraid will collapse under your weight. We laugh at the Arab who winds three yards of cloth around his head, calls it a turban, and likes it. But something tells me he must be getting a laugh out of some of the monstrosities we are putting on our heads and calling "hats". You can't see the Arab and the Japanese? You need glasses, my friend.

What difference do hats and eating-habits and physical characteristics and social ideas make, anyway? It is not the hat above the hair that counts, but what you've got under the hair. It is not what you put into your stomach that matters, but what comes out of your heart. And hearts are the same, wherever you go; they all work the same, and they all pump red blood under different colored skins. If we could get that into our heads, and act accordingly, and learn to fraternize and not to sneer and laugh and hate, we'd have a better axis than we have now.

I sat, before the war, in the home of a German mother with two boys; one was sixteen, the other eighteen. We talked of America; to them, America was a dream-land. They talked of it almost in reverent whispers. When I came away I said to the mother, "Is there anything I can send you from America, to thank you for this hospitality?" She answered, "No. I have all I need, all I ever will need. But you can do me a favor. Get down on your knees every night and pray God that your kinder will never have to kill my kinder." I looked over her head at a motto on her dining-room wall: "Der Herr ist mine Hirte." The Lordis my Shepherd! We had repeated that together, as a sort of grace, at the meal; the whole Psalm, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."

What a lot of blind, murderous fools we are! How readily we forget such fraternity as I had there in that German home; how easily we forget that we are all lost sheep with only one Shepherd. We are in the process of forgetting it, now. We can't help ourselves. We shall ship billions in the sinews of war to Europe in a few weeks, and we shall not stand by idly and see it all land on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The United States Navy will convoy those ships, rather than see England go down, and those convoys will mean war. I know—it has to be done. We've let control slip into the hands of a few tyrants who are determined to crush liberty, equality, fraternity from the earth, and they have to be beaten. Personally, I hope they are—beaten as they have never been beaten before.

But I will not believe that when we have done that we have done all we should do. After that we must clean away the debris of a false civilization, of an order that just hasn't worked. We must line up life about a new axis of human fraternity and cooperation. We must fraternize just as you Masons and Elks and Legionnaires and Women's Clubs and Bible Clubs fraternize; not as an exclusive club for the better people, but as a great brotherhood and sisterhood working for a great ideal, in the name of a great common brotherhood under the one God.

There must come a new battle for liberty, equality, fraternity that is not narrow nor even national, but as wide and inclusive as the sweep of the stars around the earth. We will go down unless we begin with fraternity and move on to the rest, move on until, as the poet has it, "Till the war-drum throbs no longer, and the battle-flags are furled, In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the World."