Today is the day of celebration for Americans. John Adams urged that we always and forever make a great celebration of this date. His list of things to do included fireworks, parades and community wide remembrances with great joy! Most of us have followed his advice. I confess that I have always enjoyed the Fourth of July (except as I get older the late night fireworks in my neighborhood are a bother). I am reminded each 4th of July of those great and unusual men who founded this nation.
I recently watched the two-part (three-hour) Ken Burns series on the life of Thomas Jefferson. It is truly worth seeing. Jefferson was the primary writer of the American Creed, the Declaration of Independence. He was brilliant beyond words. He was able to encapsulate, in a very few memorable words, the very essence of our national experiment in liberty. We can thank God, even though many false starts and serious mistakes were made, that our republic still stands on this great birthday of new freedom. How long it will last is known to none of us but the future doesn’t look nearly as grim as pessimists and conspiratorialists think. (We have always had such among us and part of our freedom is to allow them to rant and rave!)
At the same time I was reminded, especially by the Jefferson series, of just how complicated this business that we call America really was and still is. Jefferson wrote so eloquently of freedom yet he owned over 200 slaves. His words about African-Americans, written before he aged a bit, were so racist as to be beyond excuse, especially when you consider how brilliant he really was. And his recommendation that a revolution might be needed every twenty years strikes me as dangerous beyond words and out of character as well. His religious views helped to shape our important division between church and state yet he depended on a god of reason for his personal insights. He spoke of providence with deep conviction yet denied the divinity and salvation of Jesus Christ. The man lived such an inconsistent life that I found it hard to appreciate his great contributions until I was able to compete the three hours and soak it all in more fully.
My mind was thus taken back to an hour spent quietly at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. some years ago. I was stunned by the magnificence of Jefferson that day and I still am. Inconsistent he was, but what a great mind put in service to what has become a most amazing nation where freedom still reigns.
So what do I make of this American birthday? (Please note that none of our European friends have a country that can celebrate a birthday in the same way!) Simply this: America is a wonderful nation but it is not a utopia. It is a great place to live but it will never be Zion. (We have a town in Illinois founded by Christians and named Zion!)
America is a free nation but a flawed one. It presently needs the gospel as much as almost any Western nation and it desperately needs its patriotic voices to be lifted both in thanks and humble criticism.
Any view of America that loses either of these notes (thanks and humble criticism) runs the risk of destroying the true goodness and future of this land. Apocalypticists on the left and right routinely tell us that America is about to die, to undergo God’s final judgment or just rot away morally and socially. I think the truth is that none of us knows the future thus we should not waste time on these pronouncements. We can celebrate today, and we should do it with joy. Our past is troubled for sure but it is great at the same time. What we can and should do is work together to make this a better, more decent and more just place to live. And let all who love this great land live out the ideals of Jefferson while we condemn the foolish prejudice and narrow mindedness of one our greatest patriots.