Frederick Douglass on Expanding Liberty: A Quick Post-Independence Day Reflection
By J. Kameron Carter

Toward an American Theology of Freedom

In 1962, when the civil rights fervor in our country was approaching a tipping point, the great theologian Karl Barth made his one and only trip to the United States. (Of course, I have to get Barth in here given the extensive study I’m doing of him in relation to my current book project.) On that trip he implored his American hosts of the need to demythologize the Statue of Liberty. What did Barth mean by this? He was pointing to the need for an ideologically-unhinged approach to liberty. In short, he was calling for a true and specifically American theology of freedom.

But little did Barth know, to say nothing of his many American interpreters even now, that his call to demythologize liberty put him in an interesting company of thinkers and activists. This was a tradition of black intellectuals spanning the trans-Atlantic. A central figure in this tradition was Frederick Douglass.

In 1852 (on the 4th of July of that year, to be exact), just over a century before Barth showed up in America, Douglass called for a similar demythologizing of and deeper reflection on freedom and liberty in American life. Indeed, he carried out the unmasking and in the process discerned that at the center of the mythos of American liberty and its political shortcomings on the key question of the day, which was slavery, was a deep and profound failure of Christian social imagination. It was in that magnificent piece of political oratory, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” that Douglass took up his analysis of liberty and freedom. (You can find the entire speech here.)

With the war in Iraq still fresh in our political memory banks and with the recent doubling-down on the war in Afghanistan—wars waged in the wake of the September 11th attacks to defend “freedom,” because as the saying goes, “freedom isn’t free”—it is well worth returning to Barth’s admonition as the dust now settles the July 4th weekend festivities. But I want to do so by way of Frederick Douglass, the one-time American slave.

In this post, I’m going to give or at least try to give something of the flavor of Douglass’s profound address, how in it he is really intervening into America’s religious and political discourse. I’ll finish up by suggesting a connection (and it can only be a suggestion for now: I will develop it in another posting) between what Douglass is talking about and current debates about immigration in our national life.
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