When the political campaigns speak of 'freedom,' listen with care

Gordon Stewart
Gordon C. Stewart is a Presbyterian minister.
Submitted photo

My hearing continues to get worse. In the sound-proof booth of the hearing test, the audiologist asks me to repeat the words I hear...

"Say the word 'good'."

"Wood."

"Say the word 'cold'."

"Hold."

"Say the word 'gold'."

"Goal."

It's not easy inheriting my mother's hearing loss. Getting the words wrong often separates me from normal conversation.

But it also has its advantages. I listen more carefully, and the world of silence brings me to a deeper reflection about the words we hear every day.

I've begun to listen more carefully when the word "freedom" is used.

"Say the word 'free.'"

"Free," we say. And something deep within us hears the national anthem: Land of the free, and the home of the brave.

We Americans love freedom.

Future anthropologists will likely observe that freedom was the most treasured word in the American vocabulary. It is the most powerful word in our language.

No one understands this better than the handlers of political candidates. They know that the word evokes an unspoken reverence, and that perceived threats to freedom alarm us and cause us to get back in the ranks of freedom's faithful. They know the nature of language and of word association.

"Say the word 'freedom'," they say.

"Democracy."

"Say the word 'regulation'."

"Socialist."

"Say the word 'socialist'."

"Un-American."

"Say the word 'government'."

"Enemy."

"Say the word 'American'."

"Free."

Freedom stands alone in the American pantheon.

Ironically, in the hands of the unscrupulous, the word we associate with individual liberty can cause a collective stampede. It calls us from grazing freely in the pasture to joining a mindless herd.

We don't like heresy; we're afraid of being heretics.

My hearing will continue to get worse. It will take me into a world of increasing silence. In a way, I wish the same for the rest of my countrymen. We could all use some time away from the word-association games.

When we hear the word "freedom," we should be free to listen carefully and understand it for ourselves.

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The Rev. Gordon Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, Minn., and moderator of First Tuesday Dialogues: Examining Critical Public Issues Locally and Globally. He is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.

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