Monday, July 6, 2009

Independence: A Thing of the Past?

"What (do you think) is necessary for a nation to maintain its liberty?” I threw that question on the family lunch table on Independence Day.

This is dad’s idea of fun.

The teenagers, as you might expect, seized the opportunity for sarcasm with retorts like, “a Taco Bell on every corner” and “less of these kinds of questions!” But then Kimberly chimed in with, “How about people willing to pay the price for freedom?” and the conversation took on a more serious cast. Freedom, as we should all know, isn’t free.

But beyond the consideration of the price of freedom, my question had to do with maintaining independence. This question is important because every generation faces the opportunity to improve what is inherited. I worry that the America my children inherit and leave to their children may be less free, less independent than the America I inherited from my fathers. And it’s partly my fault.

I was taught the values and virtues of freedom and independence, which were inextricably American. America was “the land of the free and the home of the brave” precisely because we all loved freedom as much as life and had something worth being brave for. We knew we weren’t beyond reproach (this was the era of Vietnam and Nixon), but we still saw ourselves as the best experiment in liberty in world history, as possessing something that needed to be defended and preserved for the good of the world, not just ourselves.

My children are not learning the same lessons or inheriting the same values. Neither are yours. Our universities and academies have turned the self-critique of our democratic society into the rhetoric of self-hatred. My generation is staying silent while the flag of anti-Americanism is daily raised, anthemed and pledged in the media and in the halls of higher learning. The newly-enlightened oligarchy seem to be shifting the foundation-stones of our whole country. Hollywood is helping, by supplying the erosion of constant amusement together with destructive narratives condemning American institutions of both God and country (supply your own list of examples by visiting Blockbuster).

After a bit of reflection on the whole matter of maintaining independence, it seemed to me that I could identify at least three large ideas on which America as a free and independent nation rests. First, the kinds of foundational freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights seemed fundamental to our forefathers and should be considered the same by us. Freedom of speech, assembly, religion, etc. cannot be sacrificed without our independence being lost. Yet today, with various laws and proposals as well as the new bigotry and prejudice of political correctness, we have caused some of these fundamental freedoms to collapse under their own weight, exchanging rights for guarantees.

Second, being a nation of laws, organized around a constitution rather than a personality or a dynasty makes America one of the greatest political experiments in history. The conditions for such a nation to work have included a sense of personal morality and responsibility, along with the presumption of an adequately educated and informed population. We need to meet these conditions in every generation if we are to remain free and independent. Leaders and followers today place way too much emphasis on popularity and individual charisma. What we get, then, is snake-oil salesmen rather than statesmen. No wonder we elect them, then we want to stone them, a bit like the crowd who wanted to crown Jesus, then a week later shouted, “Crucify him.”

Finally, we need to remember that our sovereignty is derived, not intrinsic. We have the right to be independent because we have been “endowed by our Creator” with inalienable rights. Though the Declaration of Independence stops short of articulating a fully Christian perspective at that point, its language can be (and clearly was) read and understood in a Christian framework. Admitting the Christian character of colonial America is not, however, where the argument ends. For the genius of America is in informing an Enlightenment vision of liberty and freedom with the industry, morality, and shared culture of a godly people. That is why I cringe when I hear Christians responding to questions of liberty and maintaining independence with answers like “elect only Christians” or “get prayer back in schools.” Those are theocratic answers, not democratic ones.

Of all people since the first generations of Americans, we need to refresh the values and vision of Americanism in our own minds and in teaching our children. Americanism is not a term of intolerance and backwards bigotry, but rather of true independence and personal ideals. We are a nation of humility before God, laws over kings, and fundamental freedoms. If we can understand these things, embrace them and pass them on, then maybe there is hope for the next generation.