Something Missing From Our Fourth of July Celebrations

Alan Sears

6/28/2011 3:06:00 PM - Alan Sears
It was such a curious omission. Last September, in a speech at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama was taking his audience on a quick tour of early U.S. history when he referenced a line from the Declaration of Independence, whose 135th anniversary we will celebrate next week.

“Long before America was even an idea,” he said, “this land of plenty was home to many peoples – to British and French, to Dutch and Spanish, to Mexican, to countless Indian tribes. We all shared the same land. We didn’t always get along. But over the centuries, what eventually bound us together – what made us all Americans – was not a matter of blood. It wasn’t a matter of birth. It was faith and fidelity to the shared values that we all hold so dear.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ endowed with certain inalienable rights: life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That’s what makes us unique,” he said. “That’s what makes us strong. The ability to recognize our common humanity.”

Notice anything missing? The actual Declaration reads, “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.”

As I said, it’s a curious omission. And a troubling one, especially since it seems to be a pattern. Whether out of philosophical conviction or oratorical abbreviation – the president separated our “creation” from the idea of a Creator, and the “unalienable” rights we’re endowed with from the One who endowed them. The problem: our lives, our freedom, and our rights and privileges as free men and women have no real significance or lasting meaning apart from that Creator, from that Endower … from God.

Without God, there is no life beyond this. Without God, there’s no basis for morality. What difference does it make if I treat others with respect, if I fight for their freedom, if I promote peace or seek truth or even pursue happiness? My life hangs by the slimmest of threads, and when the thread breaks: nothing. No reward for good choices, no transformation for having embraced truth … for what is truth, as Pontius Pilate asked, if God does not exist to affirm one “value” as better or more worthy than another?

Without God, truth and justice and goodness mean nothing, compared to finding power and enjoying a few bright diversions and satiating my appetites and squashing anyone who interrupts or impedes the quenching of my desires.

Without God, the president’s entire assertion is wrong: being American is absolutely and entirely a matter of blood and birth … and the faith and fidelity of our forefathers was not to “shared values” but to common interests: mutual economic benefit and physical security. How can we share “values,” in any enduring, moral sense, if we remove the God whose words and character alone persuade us that there is value in generosity, humility, service, and self-sacrifice?

No, despite what the president said, it’s not the “rights” that “make us strong.” It’s the Creator on whose character those rights are founded who makes life worth living, makes liberty a reality for the soul as well as the body, makes happiness something deeper and more lasting than a moment’s gratification. The rights were endowed so that we might better know the One who endowed them; the gifts must inevitably point us to the Giver.

No man gives the woman he loves an engagement ring so that she will forget him. Indeed, the ring’s ultimate value is not the size of the diamond but wonder at the love that gave it … and the depth of the mutual commitment that gift symbolizes.

The Fourth of July, like a wedding, is and should be a celebration – not just of life and freedom shared and so many happinesses found and cherished, but of the mutual commitment that makes all these possible. To leave God out of the equation, out of the history, out of the celebration, is like celebrating a marriage with only half of a couple.

Without Him, the “glorious Fourth” is considerably less glorious – just a hollow, tinny ruckus about … nothing. And a recognition not of our “common humanity,” but of our increasing inability to fathom what life and freedom and happiness are really all about.