Today Americans celebrate the “Fourth of July.” It is typically a holiday around which people travel, families and friends gather, and people ignite fireworks to celebrate. It is viewed as a long weekend by many, who might just relax by the pool, pick up a good book, or have a barbecue. The late Erma Bombeck, a Catholic convert and comedienne whose work my mother introduced me to decades ago, famously said:
You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4th, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism.
Bombeck was mostly right; it is patriotism. But in this relaxed form of American patriotic expression, many seem to have lost the very meaning of the day. Few refer to it by its actual name, “Independence Day,” and far too many Americans have trouble identifying what events transpired to create the day. It is ironic, as people around the world envy Americans for the very freedoms we seem to take for granted. If there was ever a thing called American Exceptionalism, the lack of understanding of our own history is not evidence of it.
It is hard to say exactly where the decline of knowledge of American history and reverence for the county’s independence began. As with many things, it ultimately happened over time, and for a variety of reasons. While I am thankful we are not yet at the point of wishing people a “Merry 25th of December,” I do fear that will not be long in coming if we continue on this path. History has a tendency to be forgotten or misunderstood if not taught completely, correctly, and often. Just look at what two millennia of revisionist and poorly taught history has done to Christianity.
Endowed By Their Creator
As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently stated after we achieved independence from England, “How little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people on earth enjoy!” Indeed. Most Americans take Independence Day for granted, like they do most other holidays, and sadly, most Holy Days. It is just a date on a calendar. The meaning and importance of those historic events to us as individuals living life today just does not seem germane.
But it should. It is.
We are witnessing a waning of liberties in the United States that only truly engaged parties seem to comprehend. Those parties see liberties as not just American, but Divinely given to us by our Creator. As the Declaration of Independence itself states, “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.”
Our Founding Fathers understood well that the liberties preserved in our Constitution were not from government, but from God Himself. Even later Presidents expressed that understanding, including Franklin Roosevelt, when he stated:
[W]e look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want–which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants–everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear–which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world.
President Roosevelt, himself a progressive in his day, was not just espousing political ideals, but historic Judeo/Christian values. He understood that our governmental system depended on the essential rights given by our Creator being not just upheld, but etched in stone in our Constitution forever. But they no longer seem to be. Everywhere we turn we see an erosion of liberties. Americans are no longer allowed to hold their own beliefs if those beliefs differ from those of the progressive collective currently in charge.
Attacks on Speech and Religious Liberty
A handful of examples to ponder: Two artists in Arizona are facing jail time for sharing their Christian values, and espousing that a marriage is between one man and one woman. Bakers are by the force of government being made to bake goods for events they find objectionable. Pharmacists are required to provide abortion pills, in opposition to their religious beliefs. Religious schools are being targeted and threatened with extinction for seeking to hire people who share their values. Professors are being fired for merely mentioning the word “God.” A seven year old boy had the police called on him for bringing Bible verses to school to read at lunch. Businesses are facing lawsuits for not providing for abortion in their healthcare plans. Doctors are being coerced to perform abortions against their will. Churches and other places of worship are being assailed for objecting to marrying people outside of their congregations, or people who reject their values. Academics are being fired for disagreeing with global warming. Christian dating websites are being forced to help match same sex singles. Catholic nuns are being told they have to provide for contraception in their healthcare plans. Even ExxonMobil, the oil industry behemoth, is fighting a case defending their mere right to verbally challenge the existence of global warming.
Woodrow Wilson understood that “Liberty has never come from the government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of it. The history of liberty is a history of resistance.” Yet government, and in many cases just a few unaccountable judges, are making decisions impacting all of us, and doing so often in opposition to the will of the people who overwhelmingly voted for a different outcome. Our current president and his administration have imposed regulations and restrictions on American liberties like never before seen, much like King George did leading up to the American Revolution. Just recently, the Department of Health and Human Services implemented a rule change demanding hospitals perform sex change operations, or lose their federal funding. But we American citizens, for the most part, are doing little to cease these attacks on our liberties.
Catholics Need to Preserve and Defend Freedom
Relics of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, two stalwart supporters of truth and religious freedom, were recently in Phoenix, and are traveling the country. They, as do many others, evidence the long blood trails of martyrs who died for their faith. Their stories should be well known by Catholics, who must be engaged in any fight for free speech and religious freedom. Pope Francis, a native Argentinean, understands the import of the issue well. In an address at the White House during his visit to the United States, on September 23, 2015, he stated precisely what American Catholics stand for:
American Catholics are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination. With countless other people of good will, they are likewise concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and their right to religious liberty. That freedom remains one of America’s most precious possessions. And, as my brothers, the United States Bishops, have reminded us, all are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.
George Washington warned, “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” Yet not only is free speech threatened today, but so too is thought. Americans need to awaken and grasp the reality of the erosion of liberty we face, but particularly those liberties given by God and written into the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. As Samuel Adams urged, “Courage, then, my countrymen; our contest is not only whether we ourselves shall be free, but whether there shall be left to mankind an asylum on earth for civil and religious liberty.”
Independence Day Renewal
James Madison said, “The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.” He is right, of course. In addition to brushing up on our nation’s history yourself, take time this Independence Day to teach your kids a bit about the American Revolution so they too understand its significance. They are not getting enough history in our schools, even when the history they do learn is accurate. As Ronald Reagan said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
We can turn the tide of this American ignorance of history, and stop the waning of our liberties. “It does not take a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men,” said Samuel Adams. We must do the same in ourselves and our children. We must not let the hard work of the Founding Fathers, and so many soldiers and others who paid the ultimate price for freedom, be lost on us. Sure, we can continue to celebrate Independence Day with beer and brats, and consume whatever foods and beverages please us. But let us take some time to acknowledge that Independence Day is far more than just the fourth day of the seventh month on our calendar. Let us learn the history of our nation, and celebrate its significant dates with the appropriate reverence. Perhaps then we will truly understand the sacrifices others made to ensure our liberties, and we will then endeavor to preserve them.
Our parish’s Associate Pastor, Fr. Thomas Kagumisa, who came from Tanzania about two years ago, seems to understand the significance and importance of this most important of American holidays. At the end of Mass Sunday morning, he wished all of us, as I wish all of a you “a blessed Independence Day.”
“For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1