The Fourth of July, the big annual birthday party for America. And it is a grand celebration which unites us as a people, if only for a few hours – hot dogs and beverage, sparklers and flags, concerts in the parks, fire works, speeches mercifully few, songs most of which we can all sing.
One has to wonder how many have any real idea of what it is we are celebrating. It is certainly not our virtue as a people. The citizens of many other countries seem our equals in character. The picture of us as Americans is not always pretty. You know the statistics. Half of marriages ending in divorce. 40 percent of all children born out of wedlock. More citizens in jail than the European Union in total. Alcoholism and drug use at an all time high.
And you can read or hear equally strong criticism of us as individuals and a society from academics and preachers, right and left. What’s to celebrate? Well, we might begin by celebrating that. In my experience Americans as a people are more self-critical than most nations. And I suspect it derives from the fact that, nurtured by our religious tradition, we hold ourselves to higher standards than most other countries, including the nations of western Europe. And equally important, we feel free to do it. Today, I am afraid, with a lack of civility that I find unfortunate for a supposedly civilized people.
Nevertheless, when surveyed by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, seventy-five percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “I would rather be a citizen of my country than of any other.” But only 21 percent of Germans, 34 percent of Frenchmen and 21 percent of Spaniards, said they would rather be a citizen of their country than any other.
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Someone has said, “Granted that there is no perfect people or system, watch the direction people run in when they are afforded the opportunity.” Eleven million illegal immigrants are a problem. They are also a compliment.
A father was talking with his rather rebellious son one day and said, “Every person who lives in the United States is a privileged person.” The boy answered, “I disagree.” And the Father replied, “That’s the privilege.” Just think of the countries of this world, most of them, where that privilege does not exist. The least criticism or complaint will land you in jail or dead of a bullet. That is what they fought and died for so long ago. It is surely a miracle of providence that such a band, learned, brave, thoughtful, coalesced around the conviction that it was possible to build a society not with monarchial power, but by the consent of the citizenry who covenant with one another to live as one nation. It was in that day a wholly radical idea, breaking with the order thought to be natural and God ordained in most every other land. But so was our country born not of accident nor ethnic tribe nor even national history, but of an radical idea. And that this was a good idea was by no means widely self-evident, no matter what the Declaration said. At least one quarter of the colonists remained neutral to the idea. A quarter remained loyal to the crown. Forty thousand of them migrated to Canada.
So it was very much an experiment, this government by the people and it presented its proponents the possibility of loss of their lives. Fifty-six men signed the Declaration of Independence. Their convictions resulted in untold sufferings for themselves and their families. Of the men, five were captured by the British and tortured before they died, and had their homes ransacked and burned. Two lost their sons in the Revolutionary Army. Another had two sons captured. Nine of the fifty six fought and died from wounds or hardships of the war. Carter Braxton, of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader, saw his ships sunk by the British Navy. He sold his home and properties to pay his debts and died a pauper. At the battle of Yorktown, the British General Cornwallis had taken Thomas Nelson’s home for his headquarters. Nelson quietly ordered General George Washington to open fire on the Nelson home. The house was destroyed and Nelson died bankrupt. John Hart was driven from his wife’s bedside as she was dying. Their thirteen children fled for their lives. His fields and mill were destroyed. Over a year he lived in forest and caves, returning home only to find his wife dead and his children vanished. A few weeks later, he died from exhaustion.
Was it worth it, such death in the name of an idea, an ideal of a free people? Was it worth it in any or all of the other wars that have come our way? Young men placing the call of country above the desire to live, all these that we will remember and celebrate in our more thoughtful moments on Tuesday. Was it worth it? That all depends. It remains an open question, because they died for more than a freedom from far off King George. They died for a future in which their people would be free to govern themselves in lives of moral purpose and hope.
Professor Alexander Tytler at the end of the 18th century wrote a work entitled The Decline and Fall of the Athenian Republic. He insisted that ancient democracies waned under the selfishness of human hearts. He said these nations progressed through the following sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependency; from dependency back to bondage.
There has been a running and rather abstract argument in recent years among right and left as to whether the founding fathers were real Christians or Deists or Agnostics. The reality is they all seemed overwhelmingly concerned that the American people have a faith that would enable them the discipline and integrity to live harmonious morally responsible lives and so preserve this covenant. They recognized the risk in breaking loose from the Monarchial System, the risk of reaping the whirlwind, an anarchy of willfulness and debauchery and chaos among the citizenry. Something the French learned not long after.
So George Washington in his Farewell Address, “Do not let anyone claim the tribute of American patriotism if they even attempt to remove religion from politics. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” So John Adams, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people … it is wholly inadequate for government of any other. So Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin and many others. A century later Tocqueville, visited us and came to this conclusion, “America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
Georgia Anne Geyer, columnist and no ideologue, put it most forcefully a few years ago. “I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible to have a moral community or nation without faith in God, because without it everything rapidly comes down to “me” and “me” alone is meaningless. Today Americans have stopped acting in terms of their own moral, ethical, and religious beliefs and principles. They’ve stopped acting on what they knew was right – and the “me” has become the measure of everything. However, moral societies are the only ones that work. If anyone thinks there is no direct and invaluable relationship between personal integrity in a society and that society’s prosperity, that person has simply not studied history and this should not surprise us. Great moral societies, built on faith in God, honor, trust and the law blossom because they are harmonious; because people love or at least respect their fellowman; because finally, they have a common belief in something beyond themselves. It simplifies life immensely and you do not waste and spend your days fighting for turf, for privilege, for money and power over your fellowman.”
Hence, the concern among all these for freedom of religion, as only religion freely chosen is likely to shape the personal character and morality. So we became gradually to be sure, a country where religious faith could flourish because all forms and persuasions were tolerated and encouraged. Of course, there are those secularists today who argue that our liberty also means the possibility of freedom from religions. And I agree. They have that right. This, however, does not answer the question as to what happens to a society where a significant majority exercise that right. The secularist operates with the naïve assumption that if you encourage flight from religious commitment you will not breed a populous out of control.
‘Enough to say the Biblical view of human nature sees things differently. So does the Apostle write to the Galatians, Celts, really, later Irish. “My friends, you were called to be free; only beware of turning your freedom into license for your unspiritual nature. Instead, serve one another in love; for the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. But if you go on fighting one another, tooth and nail, all you can expect is mutual destruction.”
Some kids were shown a model of the Statue of Liberty and were asked what she was doing. One little gal said, “She is taking a shower.” Another commented, “She is raising her hand because she knows the right answer. But she knows the right answer because she has the Bible in her other hand.” Freedom needs the constraint of religion more than any monarchy, tyranny. And it needs not only constraint, but optimism, hope, the willingness to believe in a future. Compared to our European friends, we remain an optimistic people. Enshrined in our system is a kind of egalitarianism which opens up possibilities of personal progress and upward mobility which more class structured societies lack. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It has taken us a couple of centuries to begin to get the definition of “all” right. But the reality is we are thereby one of the most productive, energetic, creative people. We have a long way to go in opening up future and hope for everybody. We have not learned how to well education everyone, especially important for a future in this sophisticated, high tech society. But think of the many Islamic countries with half the population secluded in Burkhas and without education. Think of the masses of lower classes in India. Even in western Europe there are cultural and educational barriers to advancement for many.
Why do I love this country? Because my father taught me to love it. In the midst of the great depression and without a father, he had to leave school and go to work to support a mother and sister and wife and two children. He found the discipline to do so in the Baptist Church right around the corner where he surrendered himself to doing God’s will with his life. And there he also found the inspiration and courage to hope. Hoped until the day he died, my mother used to say. And so right in the middle of the depression he began an automobile dealership with some help from the family physician, began it in 1938, just three years before Detroit quit making autos for the duration of World War II. But he came out beyond, grew the business, built a beautiful home for us on a lake south of town, and sent me off to a good private school, which it was simply understood he would do. And in the midst of all this he was a faithful churchman, leader in the community, and servant of various needy organizations. And I can remember him saying, only in America, only in America. And that is the American story for millions.
But he never confused country and God. Worried that FDR was becoming too powerful, court packing and all. Worried about the moral climate of that day. Lincoln once called us an “Almost Chosen People.” Clearly chosen for a special role in the history of freedom and justice for all. Chosen and yet flawed and in danger of arrogance, he thought. An English lady accosted baritone George Beverly Shea after a Billy Graham Crusade in London. She felt it was in poor taste to sing an American patriotic song as part of the crusade. He wondered what in the world she was talking about. He sang, “It took a miracle to put the stars in place.” But she heard him sing, “It took America to put the stars in place.” So we must be careful as individuals and as a nation. Someone told me recently of a public figure whose main problem was that he had never made a mistake. We are a nation under God, that is, we are not God. We are not without flaws as a people.
I find this sense of the ultimate freedom and dual loyalty captured in a poem I have read before around this time of year, a word written by an Ambassador from England on shipboard as he sailed home to die of an incurable illness. “I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above, entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love. The love the love that stands the test, that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best; the love that never falters, the love that pays the price; the love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.
“But there’s another country I’ve heard of long ago,
most dear to them that love, most great to them that know,
We may not count her armies, we may not see her king.
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering.
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase.
And her ways are ways of freedom and all her paths are peace.”
So Thy kingdom come on this good earth, among us and beyond. Amen.
Copyright 2006, Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.