[Pastor Rick McKinniss is the Senior Leader of Wellspring Church in Berlin, CT]
The 4th of July is being threatened these days by an odd sort of “military coup”. In recent years I have witnessed a shift in how our national holiday of independence is framed in public celebrations. Instead of hearkening to the real historical events and the ideals that gave birth to our nation, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” to quote President Lincoln at the dedication of the military cemetery at Gettysburg, we have begun to reduce our public celebrations of the 4th to honoring our military for their service.
Let me be clear-it is always right and appropriate to thank and honor the men and women who have served or who are serving in our military. But the 4th of July is the celebration of the ideas that define our nation and the ideals that this experiment in self-government embodies. The 4th is the annual renewal of the Declaration of defining truths held by the signers to be “self-evident.” These include the foundational truth that all are “created equal” and “that they have been endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The 4th is also a celebration of the courage and the vision of the 56 signers, who pledged their “Lives, Fortunes and (their) sacred Honor” to seeing this cause through to the establishment of a new nation. These are the ideals our men and women in uniform serve to guard and protect and the advance. It is these ideals and the examples of courage and sacrifice that founded the nation that make present-day military service to the nation particularly noble and worthwhile.
I am not exactly sure why there is a movement and to ignore these ideals and the vision and courage of the founders—some of whom immediately had their property confiscated by the British upon signing; and all of whom would have been hanged as traitors had they been captured or had the Revolution been lost. 21st century political correctness makes it unseemly to celebrate the pioneers of earlier eras who do not live up to today’s socially acceptable norms and practices. The signers were all men. They were all white men. Some held slaves—failing to see the inherent contradiction in that heinous institution and the ideal of all being created equal. But there were no women in public leadership in the 18th century. And the Declaration of the ideal of all being created equal ultimately led to the eradication of slavery by means of a bloody civil war—white men dying to free black slaves. And the same ideal ultimately led to suffrage and equal rights for women. It is the ideals we celebrate on the 4th of July that continue to lead us, even if the founders failed to live up to all that they signed on to that day 238 years ago.
And of course, for some it is an antiquated and dangerous notion to credit the Creator as the One who endows all humanity with inalienable rights. This violates the 21st century version of the separation of church and state where God is not allowed out of the four walls of the sanctuary into the discussion of the public square. To declare that the Creator is the source and guarantor of human rights is a positively radical idea in the secular vision of current political thought.
It was also a radical notion in the 18th century, but for completely different reasons. In 1776 accepted political wisdom spoke of the divine right of kings to govern their subjects. But the Declaration speaks of the Creator endowing “the people” with rights that could not be granted, compromised or taken by a king or by any embodiment of the state. Further, it speaks of governments deriving their just powers from the “consent of the governed.” Radical notions! Revolutionary ideas! A war got started over these ideas. These are ideas that changed the world.
These are ideas the nation has been celebrating for over two centuries. And they are continued cause for celebration even into the second decade of our current century. These ideas are the heart of American exceptionalism, a much misunderstood concept that has been bandied about in our current political debate. American exceptionalism does not mean that we believe we are the greatest, best, brightest or strongest people or country on the earth. Rather, America has been an exception in the history of nations, an outlier from the rule of kings and despots. At the heart of our historical uniqueness are twin notions. First, that the state is answerable to the people; i.e. governments derive their “just powers from the consent of the governed.” Second, that the people are endowed by their Creator with rights that cannot be compromised or abrogated. So there is an authority of justice higher than the state and higher than the whims of the majority.
John Adams wrote presciently to his wife, Abigail, about the day of the signing of the Declaration:
I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations (i.e fireworks), from one end of this continent to the other, form this time forward and forevermore.
John Adams got it right. He knew that what happened that July day in Philadelphia would change the world in ways that were worthy of annual celebration.
We ought every day to thank men and women in uniform for their service to our nation. But Independence Day is not a military holiday. It is a celebration of our ideals, of revolutionary ideas that secure the liberty and equality for all our citizens. If we have failed to always live up to these ideals—and we have—that is no reason to forsake the celebration. These ideals will continue to inform our vision and fuel our aspirations as long as we embrace them, own them, pursue them. So let us not forget them! Fire off an illumination—and remind yourself about the light for life, liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness this great nation has been!