Of all the secular holidays of our culture, Thanksgiving is my favorite. It is about gratitude, which is at the top of my list of moral virtues taught by God in the Bible to all of us. I also like Valentine's Day, which (I know!) has its roots in Christianity but, like Thanksgiving, it is about love, my second favorite moral virtue. I also like Halloween because it is about giving chocolate to kids, and I love both kids and chocolate — right after gratitude and love.
However, Independence Day is way up on my list of favorite secular holidays. There is something about America that transcends normal national pride. America is a place, but more than that America is an idea. That idea is that all of us are "endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights and that chief among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." In the minds and hearts of the founders of our country, those rights were from God and not from the state. In every other state, rights are bestowed upon the citizenry by the state and its leaders. This makes all the difference in our national consciousness. What the state has not given, the state cannot revoke.
The genius of the Founders was that they were able to craft documents of independence that did not establish a theocracy and did not establish a secular state. Our country is a brilliant compromise: a state founded on religious principles that also guaranteed to every citizen the right to practice or reject any religion. This made America a unique experiment in world history, and we all are blessed by its creative and inspired wisdom of how best to encourage human flourishing. Beyond the hot dogs and fireworks, we must never forget what we are supposed to be celebrating on the Fourth of July.
I am thinking about the Statue of Liberty this year. I am not thinking about the statue's beauty and power, but of the modest and populist eloquence of Emma Lazarus' poem "The New Colossus," inscribed at her base:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
I am also thinking about Abraham Lincoln this July Fourth. On Nov. 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the following address:
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it, as a final resting place for those who died here, that the nation might live. This we may, in all propriety do.
But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow, this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here. It is rather for us the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.
I am thinking not of the 40,000 casualties of that battle, but of the 600,000 casualties of our struggle with this plague. It is absolutely fitting and holy that it is on this July 4 that we can begin to celebrate, tentatively to be sure, but still celebrate, our return to normalcy. Their deaths are a deep wound but also a deep inspiration. After so many defeats in so many recent wars, we can finally celebrate a victory over a microscopic enemy that was unable to vanquish our enduring dream.
Happy Independence Day!
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