Remembering Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms

On this July 4th celebration, I invite you to join me in savoring these images of America’s Freedoms. Struggling to get his head around how to illustrate President Roosevelt’s call to commemorate such big ideas, Rockwell finally decided to depict them as he and his neighbors actually experienced them in his home town. Here’s the backstory:

“In his 1941 State of the Union address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to unite the American people to a common cause. Though Pearl Harbor was still a year away, the war was already raging in Europe and Asia. England was on the verge of collapse. Pres. Roosevelt, faced with an isolationist-leaning America and the looming prospect of a second world war, set forth a vision that would inspire citizens to brave the sacrifices and perils he foresaw in the war against fascism. His vision consisted of four universal human rights:

freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. He saw these values as America’s heritage, now threatened and needing to be defended.

The government launched an effort to communicate the Four Freedoms. Artists, photographers, and writers were enlisted to the cause, but 18 months later the American public had little knowledge of the Freedoms, and no more than two per cent could identify them correctly.

During the summer of 1942, Norman Rockwell was considering his contribution to the war effort. In the middle of the night, an idea came to him. He would create four posters, each painting expressing one of the Freedoms.

With sketches in hand, he went to Washington DC where he was rebuffed by a man at the Office of War Information (OWI): “The last war you illustrators did the posters,” he said. “This war we’re going to use fine arts men, real artists.” When Ben Hibbs of The Saturday Evening Post heard this, he immediately asked Rockwell to create the Freedoms for the Post.

The Journal of American History reports that when they were seen by OWI, “Rockwell’s Four Freedoms were chosen over the objection of liberal intellectuals who lobbied for artist Ben Shahn’s paintings of Nazi brutality.” Shahn himself reacted negatively to Rockwell’s work and said he “objected to treating the American people ‘as if they were twelve years old.’”

The reception of Rockwell’s paintings was overwhelming. “The Four Freedoms were launched on a nationwide tour in April 1943, during which over 1.2 million people viewed them and $132 million worth of war bonds were sold. Four million posters were printed during the war; with subsequent publications, The Four Freedoms are among the most reproduced works of all time. The New Yorker reported in 1945 that The Four Freedoms “were received by the public with more enthusiasm, perhaps, that any other paintings in the history of American art.” Freedom of Worship is said to have been Rockwell’s favorite, but also the most difficult to paint.”

(From Faith and Culture: A Guide to a Culture Shaped by Faith by Kelly Monroe Kullberg and Lael Arrington, “Norman Rockwell” by David and Kelly Kullberg)

You can find beautiful reproductions of the The Four Freedoms here. I encourage you to click on the paintings and then expand (on the left) to full screen. Study the nuances (the blue collar guy standing and delivering between the two suits, praying hands surrounding skeptic’s chin rub, etc.).

Freedom from Fear deeply resonates as underneath our economic gains and soaring debt America’s financial security seems fragile. (I’m reminded of a quote in a novel, “So, how did you go bankrupt?” “Gradually. And then suddenly.”) Our nation is deeply torn apart and our enemies more unpredictably hostile than at any time in my life.

In Rockwell’s painting two parents tuck their children into bed. They sleep blissfully unaware of the ominous headline of the newspaper the father is holding, “Bombings kill…Horror….” What a blessing to grow up in the most powerful country in the world, in the history of the world.

If you’ve read 2 Kings lately you’ll remember that towards the end of its existence in the land Israel saw one king after another betrayed and violently dispatched. Few died a natural death. The king’s army was reduced to 10 chariots and 50 horsemen, a far cry from the armies of David’s and Solomon’s times. King Hazael of Syria and Ben Hadad after him ravaged Israel’s towns and cities, ripping up pregnant women and dashing infants’ heads against the rocks.

We don’t live with an ever-present fear of that kind of attack. But so much of the world has. For so long. You could say, as Roosevelt did, that freedom from that kind of fear is our heritage. You could also say we have lived in a bubble. Enjoying the providential protection of God and ascribing it to our financial acumen and military prowess. Ben Laden poked a hole in our bubble. A good reminder that freedom from fear is not our right, but a precious, fragile gift of God. Something to thank him for this week.

Rockwell’s favorite painting, Freedom of Worship, shows a symphony of prayer, young and old, black and white, Catholic, Mid Eastern, your Grandma’s look alike. Across the top is inscribed, “Each According the Dictates of His Own Conscience.” This is a quote from George Washington in a letter to the United Baptists of Virginia:

If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution framed in the Convention, where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical Society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it; and if I could now conceive that the general Government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution—For you, doubtless, remember that I have often expressed my sentiment, that every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.

I’m so grateful that the Supreme Court is moving to reverse lower court rulings in favor of religious liberty, defending the Little Sisters of the Poor against Obamacare’s compulsion to facilitate abortion last year and just last week insuring that churches have access to public benefits with a secular purpose.  Chief Justice John Roberts wrote,

…the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.

We may tend to take our freedom of religion for granted, but again, it is so unique in all the world and in history. Something else to be thankful for. And something else that seems increasingly fragile.

Our constitutional freedoms are inspired by our Judeo-Christian heritage. I marvel that God gives us real choices. Real freedoms. With his supreme power would I be so patient? I tend to be a fixer and want to control things. Would I force the choices I desire against the will of my creatures? Again and again God offers us such terrific freedom to draw close or push him away. And for that I love him.

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One thought on “Remembering Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms

  1. Nobody has commented yet here, so I’ll jump in. Since you are a teacher of Christian worldview and ideas, I am assuming that you want interaction on your posts. I too enjoy Norman Rockwell and his work. I wanted to comment, however, on the way you talked about the four freedoms and our heritage as Americans. You spoke about the four freedoms (from want, from fear, of speech, of worship) as our heritage as Americans, and that in Roosevelt’s time those freedoms were under threat, and it seems like those freedoms are under threat today. Your reference to 2 Kings and the period of Israel’s history “towards the end of its existence in the land.” I took from that that things had become worse as it’s history moved along. I guess I can’t help but feel that this view of American history is from a certain perspective, a perspective that is privileged in its telling. Who is included in the “we” in your telling of story? Who are the “Americans” in your telling of the story who enjoyed those freedoms? Whose heritage is it? Frederick Douglass gave a speech on July 4th, 1852 called “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” He was asked to give a speech at an anti-slavery society in Rochester, New York. He got up and said that he was grateful for the invitation, but really had no idea why they would want him to speak. He had nothing to say. The 4th of July meant nothing to him or to the thousands of other black people in the United States. In his book The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. DuBois talks about the split identity of black people in America. They are definitely Americans in the sense that they were born in the United States and had never lived anywhere else. But in the view of white Americans, black Americans were still foreign, and the existence and experience of black Americans were not really a part of the national story. They did not enjoy the freedoms in any real sense. You mentioned Ben Laden. When 9/11 occurred, many people said that this was the first time they were experiencing terrorism on American soil. Many black Americans looked back at the last several hundred years of their experience, especially in the early and mid-20th century when lynchings were so common. Black people in the 20’s through the 50’s lived in great fear, especially in the south, knowing that nothing big need happen for them to be killed and for justice not to occur. In the antebellum south, black slaves could not be legally married. Their owners encouraged coupling and the birth of children, but they could not have the legal status of marriage. This allowed the owners the opportunity to trade slaves freely without regard to family ties. Spouses or children could be separated and sold according to the discretion of the owner. Strong male black slaves were literally used for their ability to sire offspring like a horse or a dog. That was the norm. In his book The Irony of American History, Reinhold Niebuhr said that the story of the United States should be told with humility. I believe that the exclusion of many groups of people from enjoying these freedoms, which were supposed to be universal in American history, was more than just a blip or a mistake. It was a part of the normal way of thinking for most of American history. I don’t get the impression that Alexander Stephens’s views on black people in his famous Cornerstone speech were only for the Confederacy. There is ample evidence that the belief that black Americans should enjoy full and equal benefits of those four freedoms was a minority view for most of American history. To me we need to seriously qualify the statement that the four freedoms are America’s heritage. In terms of freedom of worship, it is interesting that in many states up into the 20th century, no one was aloud to hold public office who did not profess faith in Jesus Christ. So they could worship as they wanted perhaps, but non-Christians were limited in their ability to enjoy the full rights of a citizen. Maybe that is good from Christian perspective, but I don’t see how we can call it freedom. There are many examples of this kind of thing. We may be able to say that the four freedoms have always been aspirations and that we are still working toward them. But we cannot say that they are the heritage of every American unless we limit the definition of “American.” Who is the “we” when we tell the story? If our telling of the story, the “we” in the story, does not include the experience of all groups of Americans, then we are telling it wrong. The story of America cannot be simply the story of one group, even if it is the majority (although there are serious questions to ask about that). The four freedoms were systematically denied to many groups of people from the beginning, and only in recent times have become more common. I think that humility is a more appropriate emotion or perspective to describe the telling and celebrating of the history of the United States. I am thankful for this country. I am thankful to be an American. I can say I love this country. But I don’t say that because it is the best, or the most spiritual, or the strongest, or the wisest. I say it because it is home. God chose me to be born here, and I embrace his choice. I am glad for it, and I want to help make it better.