Each anniversary, whether of a marriage or a nation, is marked by the time and place that it finds us. Anniversaries are not static. A wedding anniversary that arrives during a rough patch in a marriage changes the way that a couple looks back at that original date. So too it is with nations.
The 237th anniversary of our independence comes at a time when independence seems to be an illusion. Dispirited by two terms of a man who may well be the worst person to ever sit in the Oval Office, many of the most patriotic men and women of our nation are questioning whether their country can survive.
America is a relationship of peoples. A marriage of disparate groups brought together by common principles and needs. The relationship has been strained at times over the years and its future now seems grimmer than ever. Some among us have even given up hope.
But there is no emotion that is quite as Un-American as despair. There are peoples for whom fatalism and apathy are constant companions, but the American character has always been molded by optimism, not the rose-colored optimism of the fool, but the determined optimism of Valley Forge, the wagon trains and the frameworks of the first skyscrapers rising over American cities.
This young century of ours has been one long Valley Forge. For thirteen years we have faced wars, economic depressions and recessions and the larger sense that our culture and identity are slipping way. Like past generations, we have come face to face with our mortality, no longer shielded by the wide blue cloak of oceans or the might of an industrial superpower.
No generation in a hundred years has shared the same sense that everything the United States is could slip away. The setbacks of the last thirteen years can fill us with despair and convince us that there is no hope. Or they can strengthen us for the fight ahead.
We are living in revolutionary times. For two centuries we had the luxury of living in post-revolutionary times and celebrating the Fourth of July as an event that happened long ago. We no longer do. The old struggle between “absolute despotism,” in the words of the Declaration of Independence, and “unalienable rights” is no longer something that we read about in history books. It is upon us now.
If the spirit in which we encounter the Fourth is less carefree than usual, that brings us closer to the troubled time in which the Declaration of Independence was signed and printed. If we consider the United States endangered, imagine how endangered it was back then. If we feel a sense of national fragility, surrounded by enemies foreign and domestic, that state of mind puts us in touch with the emotions and arguments that animated the American Revolution.
Post-revolutionary times are balanced. They have their dangers and threats, but there is a deep abiding sense that most things will go on as they always have no matter what happens tomorrow.
Revolutionary times are turbulent. They are agitated by the common feeling that the balance has been lost and a tipping point has arrived. Even as we feel the sickening lurches of a nation that appears to be slipping toward the cliff, we should not despair. A revolutionary society moves easily because it is unmoored and can be turned around in the right direction. And when that happens, history changes.
The birth of the United States was not inevitable. It happened against incredible odds and a torrent of difficulties. Now it is caught between decline and rebirth. Which of these it will be, we will learn when enough men and women push one way or another until the next tipping point is reached.
Living in revolutionary times, we cannot idly celebrate a revolution of the past without also committing ourselves to changing the present. Independence is not a gift that was won once and never needs to be thought about again.
We are privileged to live in a time when we can no longer take freedom for granted. It may seem like an odd sort of privilege to watch and worry as our rights are taken away, but freedoms are won and rights are secured out of such difficult times. And the freedoms won are much more satisfying and enduring when they are snatched out of the teeth of tyranny because it is only in such difficult times that the true meaning of freedom can be understood.
Freedom is an intangible quality. Like health or light, we notice it most clearly in its absence. And so the only way to truly appreciate freedom is to be on the verge of losing it.
Our Fourth of July may be more troubled than it was a century ago, but those troubles have brought us closer to a day some 237 years ago that led to centuries of freedom. Political revolutions can happen once, but revolutions of liberty must take place again and again to secure the precious commodity that is so easily swallowed up by the power of government.
Earlier generations were lectured on the danger of taking freedom for granted. We don’t need those lectures because the country we now live in does not allow us the luxury of taking freedom for granted. We can see the dark tunnel up ahead as right after right vanishes into the maw of the regulatory state.
Our celebration of independence may be less carefree, but that is because we feel what is truly at stake. Independence. Liberty. Freedom. The freedom to think, to live our faith, to earn a living and to raise a family.
For us, the struggle for freedom is not some abstract thing. It is not something that people in other countries far away across the ocean do. It is our struggle. It is our freedom that we are fighting for.
We approach the Fourth of July in the same spirit as the men and women who were about to become the citizens of a new country did 237 years ago. Their struggle is our struggle and our struggle is their struggle. The Fourth of July commemorates that ongoing struggle and reminds us that the patriots of our nation have confronted domestic enemies who would snatch away our freedom and come away with victories of ideas before.
237 years later, the people of this nation are once again fighting to be free.
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