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The extraordinary meaning of July 4th for America and the world

REUTERS/Brian Snyder
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

As we gather as a people to celebrate the 247th anniversary of our birth as a nation, we should all pause to ponder and expend some mental, emotional and spiritual capital meditating on the magnificent magnitude of what it is we collectively celebrate with fireworks, parades and speeches every Fourth of July.

Well, in the providence of God as I believe, or alternatively, as a consequence of extraordinary, perhaps unprecedented, fortuitous circumstances, a dazzling, critical mass of political and philosophical talent coalesced on the eastern seaboard of the North American continent in the middle and latter third of the 18th century.

This uniquely extraordinary group of men produced a truly revolutionary new belief:

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“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—”

Having pledged their allegiance to this truly revolutionary concept, they then assert that government (far from monarchs ruling by “divine right”) exists among men “to secure these rights” and that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

It is probably not possible for inhabitants of the 21st century to comprehend the full revolutionary power of these concepts to the 18th century mind.

As men of the 18th century, they are residents of their time and place (as we are men and women of our time and place), but in proclaiming the equality and equal worth of every human being, they were unleashing an ultimate and comprehensive truth which would turn their world upside down. The appeal to the Creator makes this a moral and theological concept rather than merely a biological one. So, this equality is not based on merit, talent, performance, or even potential, but rather on equal value spiritually, each one of us bearing the image and imprint of the Creator (the “imago Dei”).

Each and every human being, by virtue of being a human being, is from conception to natural death, and everywhere in between, of equal value and worth to the Creator, and thus should be to us.

It was this commitment to imago Dei in man that created the culture of life in Christendom. It is the modern world’s embrace of man as merely a uniquely sophisticated finite mammal, courtesy of Nietzsche and his modern acolyte Peter Singer that gave us the morally bereft “culture of death.”

On the Fourth of July, we celebrate first and foremost the declaration of the dignity and immeasurable worth of every human being and the tremendous blessings for humanity across the globe that have ensued.

By 1776, a distinct English-speaking civilization had developed in what was to become the United States of America. Extraordinary as they were, the founders were well aware of many of those limitations of being limited by the customs and values of their time and place.

And they knew it. George Washington, the “father” of our country and the nation’s first president, declared: “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery.” America’s third president and the prime author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, declared, “There is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity.” 

The nation’s fourth president and one of the chief architects of the Constitution, James Madison, spoke of “the magnitude of this evil” concerning slavery. Jefferson sadly concluded, however, concerning slavery, “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go.”

Slavery and the racism it required has undeniably significantly impacted America and Americans, black Americans most of all, and it still impacts us.

However, slavery was not at the center of the American project. America, from the Declaration onward, has been striving to evermore fully live out, and up to, the full implications of the seminal truths of the Declaration. Indeed, well over 300,000 young American men sacrificed all their tomorrows to end the evil of slavery.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated in his incandescent “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in support of the landmark Civil Rights legislation,

“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes black men as well as white men, it would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

“So, we’ve come,” he said,  “to cash the check.” And he said:

“I have a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’”

The great American film director Billy Wilder (an Austrian immigrant who fled the Nazis), once said, “You’re only as good as the best thing you’ve ever done.” Our founders’ vision, proclaimed in 1776 and again in 1787, is the best thing any nation has ever done.

As we have traversed the long journey toward implementing that vision, fulfilling those promises, and inspiring much of the world to follow our example, that vision of “all men created equal” has inspired tens of millions (including Dr. King) around the globe for more than two centuries, including a former black slave, Frederick Douglass, and the descendants of black slaves such as Booker T. Washington, Thurgood Marshall, Clarence Thomas and multitudes of all ethnicities to make America ever more the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

While we as a people are informed by the ghosts that haunt our history, we are also inspired by our heroes as well.

Let us never be distracted from our ultimate goal of ever more fully achieving the American dream.

As David Marcus reminds us in The Federalist, “Ours is not a nation that bends to the arc of history. Ours is a nation that bends the arc of history.” We are still in the process of creating the most free and equal society that the world has ever known.

Let us tell our story to our young people and urge them to take up the cause and lift the torch of freedom high enough for all to see.

Will Durant, one of the great historians of the last century, has observed that “history is to a nation what memory is to an individual. … Without memory, a person is unknowable to himself and anyone else.”

You deprive a nation of its history and that nation loses its identity, its meaning and its frame of reference. Unfortunately, that is what we have too often done to our young people in recent years. We have either utterly neglected our history or we have distorted it by claiming that we were founded on slavery — which is malicious, malignant nonsense.

This Fourth of July let us all resolve to know our history, to teach it, and to make it by making America more and more what our founding fathers desired it to be.

We should all be proud of our American heritage and we should be inspired by it. I know I am. And I, for one, will never give up on Dr. King’s dream of a country where all men are created equal and where we are all judged by the content of our character, not by the color of our skin.

Happy birthday America!

Dr. Richard Land, BA (Princeton, magna cum laude); D.Phil. (Oxford); Th.M (New Orleans Seminary). Dr. Land served as President of Southern Evangelical Seminary from July 2013 until July 2021. Upon his retirement, he was honored as President Emeritus and he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Theology & Ethics. Dr. Land previously served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) where he was also honored as President Emeritus upon his retirement. Dr. Land has also served as an Executive Editor and columnist for The Christian Post since 2011.

Dr. Land explores many timely and critical topics in his daily radio feature, “Bringing Every Thought Captive,” and in his weekly column for CP.

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