In the past, liberals had control over the terms “liberty” and “freedom.” Now, there is a war going on between liberals and conservatives in the media over the uses of the terms “liberty” and “freedom.” The group that is better able to control the usage of those important American ideas will have an easier time getting legislation passed and electing candidates.
In past decades, the terms “liberty” and “freedom” have been used in the media to justify liberal causes. George Lakoff, author of Whose Freedom?, and numerous other books on political discourse, writes that, in past decades, freedom meant “expanding civil rights, voting rights, tolerance” and numerous other things (Lakoff p. 73). Using terms such as “freedom to vote” was a useful way for liberals to invoke the term freedom to justify legislation, such as the Voting Rights Act, because it helps associate such legislation with what Lakoff calls “our most important idea” (Lakoff p. 1). Freedom, in those days, primarily helped liberal candidates and causes in this way.
One example of how conservatives are redefining freedom in the media to their advantage is in the use of the terms religious liberty and religious freedom to rally support for their candidates. In a radio appearance last year, Karen and Charlotte Pence, wife and daughter of Vice President Mike Pence, respectively, used the terms “religious liberty” and “religious freedom” five times in less than three minutes to justify her husband’s anti-LGBTQ views (“Karen Pence…” video.foxnews.com). She also invoked America’s history of people coming to this country for religious liberty and freedom to defend her husband against the attacks of openly-gay Mayor Pete Buttigeig (“Karen Pence…” video.foxnews.com). This use of language may rally sympathy amongst social moderates for Pence because it casts him as someone who is having his freedoms oppressed by Mayor Pete Buttigeig, our current court system, and liberal legislation. In this sense, it makes Pence seem like the victim of discrimination, not Buttigeig. It also helps rally support for the Trump/Pence ticket by invoking our nation’s history, founding fathers, and shared values. In this way, Karen and Charlotte Pence helped their husband’s re-election cause by redefining freedom.
The terms religious liberty and religious freedom are also being used to push socially conservative legislation. In 2016, Governor Bill Haslam (R-TN), and the conservative Tennessee state legislature, used the term “religious freedom” in discussions with the media to justify legislation that would allow counselors and therapists to deny care to anyone who disagreed with their “sincerely held beliefs” (Margolin www.msnbc.com). The legislation passed and was signed into law, despite the fact that the Tennessee Association for Marriage and Family Therapists, Tennessee Counseling Association, American Counseling Association, and American Association for Suicide Prevention all opposed it on the grounds that it would allow therapists to discriminate against LGBTQ persons, especially in rural areas where there are few counseling/therapy options available (Margolin www.msnbc.com). If this legislation had been framed as a way to discriminate against LGBTQ people by its creators, it would have been much less popular, and likely would not have passed. However, by using the term “religious freedom,” the governor and state legislature made it sound as though anti-LGBTQ counselors were the victims of discrimination and oppression, not LGBTQ people. This created sympathy. Thus, by using the term “religious freedom,” Tennessee got a strongly anti-LGBTQ bill piece of legislation passed.
Liberals have also used the terms “liberty” and “freedom” with some success in the battle over same-sex marriage. LGBTQ rights groups have been using the term “freedom to marry” for quite some time to establish support for same-sex marriage (“Winning the Freedom to Marry Nationwide” www.freedomtomarry.org). The idea behind this term is that everyone should have the right to marry who they love, regardless of their gender. This creates sympathy for LGBTQ persons by casting them as the ones who are having their freedom taken away by gay-marriage bans, not conservatives. Using this term in press releases and other forms of communication through the media helped liberal groups establish more support for same-sex marriage by associating America’s most important idea with their cause.
Liberals and conservatives are battling over the usage of the terms “liberty” and “freedom” in the media. The group that is able to better harness the power of these important ideas will be able to get their candidates elected and rally support for their legislative policies.
“Karen Pence…” Fox News. Video.foxnews.com. 2019.
Lakoff, George. Whose Freedom?. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 2006.
Margolin, Emma. “Tennessee Enacts ‘Religious Freedom’ Measure.” MSNBC. www.msnbc.org
“Winning the Freedom to Marry Nationwide.” Freedom to Marry. 2015. www.freedomtomarry.org.