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When you stop and think about it, it’s pretty amazing that the United States of America even exists. There have been so many times and so many ways that our grand experiment with freedom and democracy could have come to a screeching halt or just never have taken off to begin with.
That we’ve held it all together for 237 years is a testament to the grace of God, the wisdom of great leaders and the natural desire of humans to live free. As we celebrate the nation’s birth, it’s a great time to remember exactly how all this came to be.
When they were younger, I used to read my kids the Declaration of Independence every July 4th. I’m sure they filed it away under “boring history stuff,” but my goal was to give them an appreciation for what the holiday represents and help them see the significance of this fascinating document. I also wanted them to understand the conditions under which it was written.
I explained that a group of citizens from different colonies got together and told arguably the most powerful man on earth to go pound sand.
Let that thought sink in for a second. King George III ruled an empire that stretched around the globe. He had a mighty navy and a battle-hardened army that defeated France just a few years earlier.
Yet, right there, in the first sentence, the patriots committed an act of high treason by announcing they were going to “dissolve the political bands” with England. To paraphrase the opening lines, they basically said, “This whole king thing really isn’t working for us any more. We’re going to do our own thing now.”
That was outrageous on its own, but then they took it one step further and added these immortal words:
“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.”
They went on to enumerate all the ways in which the king and his government were a thieving, conniving band of thugs. (Because, at that point, why not?) But to me, the heart of the document is the paragraph about our “unalienable Rights.” That’s because it describes the very essence of freedom.
Our basic human and civil rights aren’t gifts from our government; they are ours to start with. We agree, on a very limited basis, to forgo some of those freedoms so that we can live in a civil society. But the citizens remain sovereign.
I think we sometimes forget that this concept is still a bit of a novelty in the world. For example, Iran’s citizens live under the repressive rule of religious fanatics. China is opening up to capitalism but not to human rights. And even the United Kingdom and other European nations live with the remnants of monarchy.
Ours is a unique success story, but we have to remember that freedom isn’t always neat and clean. Freedom means that we have to put up with people doing and saying things we don’t like. It means criminals are entitled to due process. It means our government is a secular institution. And it means that the jackass next door gets to vote just the same as us.
Despite all of that, freedom is precious. It’s our birthright and we should never blindly give it up in the name of politics, religion or even security. That’s because none of those things is sustainable in its absence.
Happy Independence Day!