On Liberty, 2021
I love Independence Day. Not everyone does.
Love for a thing will reform it far better than hate.
I have always loved July the 4th. Our families gather for good food, we watch fireworks displays in town and around the nation, and I am reminded again of a unique confluence of historical events that produced this unique experiment in political liberty. If you count it in terms of appreciation for the founding principles, the Founders themselves, and the history of the American people, I am a patriot.
Our nation, however, is in the throes of a debate that threatens to tear entire generations of people away from the promises of liberty when it is lived in by people of virtue. We are now told that our past is irretrievably tainted by the sin of slavery and systemic racism. The only appropriate lenses for our national vision are wholly negative. We require a full dismantling, perpetual repentance without hope of forgiveness, and movement in a direction that no one can adequately define.
But is this the right way to make sense of and reconcile the sins of the past? Is it possible that our nation has already shed blood and tears, and spent money to attempt just such a thing? And most importantly, will we accomplish anything of lasting value if we learn to hate a thing instead of learning to properly love a thing?
In his book, The Magna Carta of Humanity, Os Guinness remarks about this wholly negative view of our past combined with victimhood:
The danger for society is that when young people are allowed to learn only the negative lessons from history, to justify the victim narrative, they end in reinforcing the evils from their past rather than remedying them. They have been trained to use the injuries of the past to serve the interests of their future and thus to ignore the real responsibilities of the present.
This is the kind of insight we watched unfold on cable news during the riots of 2020. Think of the statues torn down, including abolitionists and others, who by any standard, stood up for the oppressed. Think of the “semi-autonomous zones” erected in which police were excluded and the streets flowed with blood, open sewage, and moral preening. Evils were shouted about a lot, but no remedy was put forward. And thousands upon thousands of young people settled themselves into their victimhood narrative in order to use their fictional past to avoid the moral responsibilities placed on adults in the present.
Hate for a thing – hate for a nation – only tears down and cannot build. It lacks the moral and intellectual capital required to put forth a vision of what is better and then live up to that standard. Hate lacks the ability to sacrifice for the good of another. Hate wants others to sacrifice themselves for my self-advancement. No nation can be made better by hate; no civilization can be built on hate.
But consider the alternative. Love for a thing entails my desire for the good of the thing or person. My love for a spouse or a child means I want their best. This will mean I develop a disposition of attention toward them, even learning to put my own needs and wants behind theirs. This means I will learn to work for their good and spend my time and talents in ways that will benefit them. I will also hold moral standards. Love in its truest form never means acceptance of any behavior. It means we want what is morally good for them, even if that means we disagree.
A nation, no matter how unique and full of benefit for its citizens, will be far from perfect. If we love it, however, we envision what it can be and we work for its betterment and we will work against its faults. Love is a robust moral behavior; hate is shallow and self-centered.
Consider this sermon given on the day of the commencement of the U.S. Constitution. It was given by Samuel Cooper to an audience that included John Hancock on October 25, 1780. The whole thing is worth a read this weekend, but these excerpts help us see a different perspective than the one ascendent today. Cooper sees the long-term value in the principles enshrined in the Constitution and likens us to the nation of Israel at the end of the book of Joshua – we will be held responsible if we do not hold up our end of the covenant. He sees the necessary combination of public reason, civility, and a vibrant church to maintain liberty and the checks and balances of power.
And he sees the necessity of love for the Constitution and our nation. Only “such a manly, such a sacred fire” can keep what we have been given.
If ever we renounce the constitution and happy settlement granted to us by heaven; if ever we break the sacred compact; this day, and all the public and voluntary transactions of it, must be a witness against us.
Here he preaches that the doctrine that all humans are equal and free is clear to human reason, thus it is only right it should be written into law.
We want not, indeed, a special revelation from heaven to teach us that men are born equal and free; that no man has a natural claim of dominion over his neighbours, nor one nation any such claim upon another; and that as government is only the administration of the affairs of a number of men combined for their own security and happiness, such a society have a right freely to determine by whom and in what manner their own affairs shall be administered. These are the plain dictates of that reason and common sense with which the common parent of men has informed the human bosom. It is, however, a satisfaction to observe such everlasting maxims of equity confirmed, and impressed upon the consciences of men, by the instructions, precepts, and examples given us in the sacred oracles; one internal mark of their divine original, and that they come from him “who hath made of one blood all nations to dwell upon the face of the earth,” whose authority sanctifies only those governments that instead of oppressing any part of his family, vindicate the oppressed, and restrain and punish the oppressor.
But common reason is not enough. A robust and faithful church must exist and do its job to keep a state from “savage barbarity.”
It considers indeed morality and the public worship of God as important to the happiness of society: And surely it would be an affront to the people of this state, as the convention speak in their previous address, “to labor to convince them that the honor and happiness of a people depend upon morality; and that the public worship of God has a tendency to inculcate the principles thereof, as well as to preserve a people from forsaking civilization, and falling into a state of savage barbarity.”
And, finally, he argues that love for (reverence of) a constitution and nation leads to selfless behavior, cheerfully endured for the public good. So it is with what love does in the heart and lives of people. We gladly work for the good of our neighbor, loving them with the kind of love commanded by our Savior.
The citizens of a free republic should reverence their constitution: They should not only calmly approve, and readily submit to it, but regard it also with veneration and affection rising even to an enthusiasm, like that which prevailed at Sparta and at Rome. Nothing can render a commonwealth more illustrious, nothing more powerful, than such a manly, such a sacred fire. Every thing will then be subordinated to the public welfare; every labour necessary to this will be chearfully endured, every expence readily submitted to, every danger boldly confronted.
Have a happy Fourth of July.