Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy
On the Fourth of July
I love the Fourth of July, with its vigorous celebration of the birth of our nation and festive focus on the primacy of freedom. And I don’t take any one of those sources of joy for granted.
According to reliable historical records, when Benjamin Franklin left Independence Hall on the final day of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman asked aloud, “Dr. Franklin… what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Those words spoken at ground zero of the emerging democracy should fill us with sobriety and inspire within us commitment as we celebrate independence. Neither the character of our nation nor the durability of our freedom is without challenges and ultimately questions about their continuation.
More and more, I am of the opinion that we have one opportunity to enjoy the blessings of this democracy. If we blow that opportunity, life will be immeasurably different. To be perfectly honest, I am not sure how to account for the vision and provisions of this government from its inception. The whole endeavor strikes me as a unique moment in time that likely is unrepeatable. Certainly coming to agreement on this form of government would be virtually impossible today.
A distinctive gathering of people together reached beyond the furthest most reach of any one of them individually. They transcended prejudices to establish a staggering guarantee of rights, liberties, and justice. Knowing full well the dangers of free speech, they insisted on free speech—even for those speaking truths they could not accept. Having known firsthand the revolution that can come from public gatherings, they voted to establish freedom for public assemblies. Well aware of the dangers of entanglement between the institutions of religion and government, even those skeptical about religion provided independence for religion through a secular government. As people who had been in a harshly criticized minority in another land who now knew the power of being a part of a majority in this land, the founders bucked the historic tendency of minorities who become a majority and demanded rights—equal rights—for every minority in this new nation.
I tremble with gratitude when I contemplate this group of people transcending individualism and partisanship to shape a nation centered on the primacy of liberty and justice for all people. No, I do not think it could happen again now; I see no evidence to challenge that assumption. So I also tremble with fear when I think of where our nation is going.
Today, security seems more important than liberty—a character trait of the nation that could cost the nation its greatest blessing. Government-subsidized religion strikes many people as more important than fidelity to the Constitution. Whatever immediate good may come from such an arrangement will be voided by the evils that result from entanglement between religious institutions and government. Incredibly, fair trials no longer seem essential if people are thought to be terrorists. A presumption of “guilty until proven innocent” has replaced our national bias for justice. Freedom of the press is reeling under the pressure of government officials who want to use the press to advance their policies, and religious as well as political leaders who condemn the press for stirring controversial conversations that challenge their convictions and authority.
Years ago, Bishop Fulton Sheen suggested that it is time for us to erect on the West Coast a Statue of Responsibility to complement the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast. The good Bishop’s insight into essential balance is an important one.
As we shoot firecrackers and sing patriotic hymns and contemplate the blessings of freedom this year, let’s also give a nod to our responsibility for protecting and strengthening what we have. We dare not lose the uniqueness of a government that perhaps could never again be formed.
Happy Fourth of July, everyone!