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FIRST-PERSON: Freedom’s advance


EDITORS’ NOTE: Laura Erlanson, operations coordinator for Baptist Press, traveled to Washington and witnessed President Bush’s inauguration Jan. 20.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–I think the 11 of us had on a combined total of 47 layers of clothing standing in front of the Capitol Jan. 20 for President Bush’s inauguration.

My sister said she learned her lesson four years ago, when we attended the first swearing in of Bush in the freezing rain. So this time she had her three children sufficiently snug in their sweaters and boots and hats and scarves, much of it borrowed, since they live in Florida. (Who needs wool in Florida?)

Inauguration trips have become sort of a tradition in my family. That is, if you can count twice in a row as a tradition.

The first time, it was sort of an impulse — a ride on the wave of national hysteria that followed the 2000 election, which, as you’ll recall, dragged on well past Election Day and which, as you’ll also recall, was especially intense in our native Florida.

This trip, however, has been planned for a while. In fact, we decided after the last trip that — provided an agreeable election outcome — we’d go to the Inauguration every time from here on out. So far, we’re one for one.

So there we were, in our cumulative 47 layers, standing amid a half-million perfect strangers who were squeezing in from all sides, and trying to pretend that our toes weren’t hurting from the cold.

I’m proud of my nieces and my nephew. If they were bored, they didn’t let on. They were reverent, as if they knew they were witnessing history. Plus, this was their second time. They’re pros at this inauguration stuff.

I was not as emotional this time as last. I’ve pondered that a lot. Was it because last time was my first attendance at such a significant event and my first trip to our capital as a grown-up? Was it because I’d stared at our actual founding documents at the National Archives the day before and realized that our fierce belief in the equality of all is what makes this all work? After all, the reason our transfers of power are so peaceful is because that “power” is derived from the people. Even the president isn’t above the Constitution.

Perhaps I was simply awed by the beauty of our nation’s capital. It is something to be proud of, and if you haven’t gone, you should. And you should take your kids or your nieces and nephews. The Capitol building itself is simply breathtaking — especially on Inauguration Day, all draped in huge flags and bunting. And what it represents is even more breathtaking — it’s where somebody from your town goes to represent your town. What a great way to do it.

All of these things might have contributed to my heightened emotion last time and resulted in my feeling stoic this time by comparison.

But I think it was more than that. I think this time was less emotional because there is a seriousness to our world now that did not exist four year ago. There is important business to do. Our society is at risk at the hands of those who disdain its freedom. Now is not the time for emotion. Now is the time for resolve.

Fortunately, those who would see freedom’s fire stamped out do not represent the majority of the world. They don’t even represent the majority of those nations to which they belong. That is important to remember as we head into this weekend when violence in Iraq is sure to escalate and when millions will risk their very lives for a chance to have their voice heard.

In this age when the exchange of ideas is global and instantaneous and when a blogger on a laptop has as much opportunity for influence as a network anchor or a charismatic despot, there is little hope for oppressive regimes. They will find it increasingly difficult to shield their subjects from the ideas and realities of freedom.

As Christians, this idea should be very exciting. We’ve believed all along in what President Bush said in his address — that God Himself is the Author of Liberty. And therefore we should welcome its advance in all corners of the world — and not simply because it will mean a better life for all who attain it. But also because it will give us access to parts of the world still untouched by the message of ultimate freedom — that found in Jesus Christ.

Certainly no society is perfect, since they’re all made up of imperfect people. And any form of government that allows for the freedom of expression and assembly will undoubtedly foster unrest and dissent.

My family was confronted with this reality Jan. 20 when we were denied access to the Inaugural Parade after the swearing-in ceremony. Even though we had purchased tickets to sit in bleachers along Constitution Avenue, security had closed down our checkpoint due to unruly protesters. We received our fair share of comments and insults as we stood in line for more than an hour only to be told we would not be allowed in.

On the long subway ride back to the hotel, we discussed the day’s events as we removed several of our 47 layers. We were of course disappointed. And we felt as if the rights of a few protesters were allowed to supersede our own, even as dozens of riot police stood by watching it happen. There were others on our train who’d had a similar experience and we all agreed that we’d been treated unjustly.

But in the end, I concluded that even though our own 200-plus-year experiment with democracy is far from perfect and sometimes many people can still be inconvenienced by a few, I’d still rather err on the side of freedom.

This weekend, I urge you to pray for the citizens of Iraq.
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