Free flowing thoughts on a bittersweet celebration

Today is America's 232nd birthday, and I'm one of the many who still think "The 4th" is about more than grilled beef and bottle rockets. Not that parties are bad; birthdays are certainly a time to celebrate, but celebrations don't mean much unless we know what we're celebrating. And America's birthday is no different. So, what follows are a few random musings on a couple of the feelings that seem to arise in me every year about this time.
This nation meant something when it was founded - it stood for something. I majored in colonial and Revolutionary American history in college, and while that doesn't make me an expert it did afford me the opportunity to immerse myself in the thoughts which forged this republic. I think the Founders understood various forms of tyranny better than we do today, and they were outraged by it because tyranny violates basic human dignity and value.
But this creates an immediate question: what is human dignity and value, and where does it come from? One thing was certain: the Founders believed it came from someone "up there." Now, let's be clear: many of these guys were not modern-day evangelical Christians. Perhaps I'll post later on the question of whether America is or ever was "a Christian nation" - that's a question I'm not addressing here. But the fact remains that even a miracle-denying son of the Enlightenment like Thomas Jefferson willingly penned America's formative words, the nation's first cry in the delivery room:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..."
There is something true and beautiful in those words, and even now I can't read them without becoming emotional. The appeal, which is quite broad and has been embraced by Americans of nearly all religious persuasions for generations, is the grounding of our way of life (and thus our government - a secondary consideration) in a higher source, from which human dignity and rights flow. In the American vision, government is dependent on the consent of the governed, but rights are not. If the latter were the case the majority would always dominate the minority - another form of tyranny.
In the American vision, absolute truths are held to be above the power of even the government to violate. Perhaps that's why our 2nd president John Adams famously said "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” In America, citizens are to adhere to higher truth (which protects everyone's rights) based on their own internal morality, not because the state forces them to. Adams was saying that virtue in America will survive only to the extent we choose to be a virtuous people. America is a grand call to live for a higher purpose by our own choice, and to enjoy the liberty to do so.
Yet my celebratory feelings are mixed with twinges of sadness and concern because the age of postmodern relativism presents a real problem to this grand political vision in my view. We're fast becoming a nation enamored with blurring distinctions of every kind. But if, for example, humans are really no different than apes, whales, and cockroaches (as in the Naturalist worldview) then where do our rights come from? If meaning and truth are merely social constructs (as postmodern philosophers teach) then our cherished "rights" are really just figments of our imagination, which can be altered or eliminated as those with power see fit. The further we push into postmodern relativism, the further we drive a sawblade through the very branch our Republic sits on.
Still, it's a thick branch and I'm optimistic that history isn't yet through with America and it's unique vision of representative republican government. And I can think of no better day on which to remind ourselves who we are and where we came from. So on this 4th of July I salute not only America, but the grand vision of truth, meaning, and purpose upon which this nation's social fabric and governmental structures were built.

The original Declaration of Independence, the first cry of our nation at it's birth.
(now badly faded due to poor document preservation techniques in the 19th century)


Luke said...

I think Jefferson gets it mostly correct, despite his theological shortcomings. I would say we are afforded our rights, by God, because He has created us in His image.
Perhaps, rather than focusing on the "American vision", we should discern the proper "Christian vision"; using that to test the validity and value of other visions (maybe you mean world-view).
On a lighter note, regarding July 4th as America's birthday, what do you think of June 21 (ratification of the Constitution) for America's birthday. Conveniently, it's even 9 months after the CC adopted the Constitution (Sept 17).

Ken said...

Hm. American History major. I knew there was a reason I liked you - beyond great coffee, that is. I was an American History major myself, but my focus was the era leading up to an including the Civil War and through Reconstruction. But that's not the topic of your post, just a little backgrounder.

I agree that our Founding Fathers had a sense that there are certain rights that inherent to all humans and that it required a certain morality and conscience.

What disturbs me more and more is the lack of civic understanding in today's society. True, there have been political snipings but that more people aren't interested in who there government is and what it is doing I find absolutely appalling.

Reading the Declaration of Independence should be required on every 4th of July. It helps to recenter Americans on what the principles of our nation and Republic truly are.

I hope you had an enjoyable 4th of July Matt.

Matt Guerino said...

Luke: the 9-month connection made me chuckle - I hadn't ever thought of that! I think the Declaration is the nation's proper birthday because that's when we decided to be a real, separate nation. The Constitution (and Articles of Confederation before it) merely codified the way in which the government of this new nation would function.

On the difference between the "American" and "Christian" visions... there's a lot to say there. As a committed Christian I certainly seek to evaluate everything on the basis of what God has said. I'll get more into how I see this working (and not working) in our pluralistic society in a future post(s).

Ken: I didn't study much 19th century history in school - that would be fun to learn more about.

That rights come from somewhere other than majority opinion is one of the watershed issues of our increasingly secular day, IMO. The American state was never intended to be the master or slave of any particular denomination, but the increasingly popular view that it is supposed to somehow be a secular state (in the mold of, say, modern France) is not only wrong, it's dangerous. A difficult balancing act to be sure, but one worth attempting!

We had a great 4th - I hope you did too!

Jerry Casper said...

Hi Matt. We ended up watching National Treasure over the weekend. Although it is a complete work of fiction, there is one part of the movie that catches me everytime. Nicholas Cage is standing in the National Archives and reads a part of the Constitution. After reading it, his comedic companion says, "People don't talk that way any more and I have no idea what you said"

Cage replies with some thoughts about the Declaration, but the important point is that people not only don't talk that way anymore, they simply don't think about these subjects anymore and most people aren't equipped to understand even the basics of what they mean.

It's like you said in church today. We've filled our lives with such busy-ness that we don't have time to reach out to the people around us. Another unfortunate loss in our hurry to fill every moment of our lives is that we don't take the time to spend thinking and reading about these concepts like our forefathers did.

Anonymous said...

True, people don't talk that way any more, but the majority didn't back then either. It's not like the new world was ready to go to war against the British. They, like people today, just wanted to go about their business and be left alone. However, if there weren't the few who think these things through, and do the hard stuff that greatness requires, they would never have experienced the freedom brought by our declaring independence. Thankfully, today, there are still the few who get it and are willing to do what it takes to keep our country great. But I'll admit, they don't get the press, making them harder and harder to find.

oregonfatts said...

Matt, great thoughts on the founding of the States. Separately, I tried your mail button to get your thoughts on the book: "irresistable revolution" by Shane Claiborne.

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