I write this with bombs bursting in air as our nation celebrates the 243rd anniversary of our “we’re outta here” message to Great Britain. It’s a good day to be an American, even if the state of our union seems a little tattered recently.
The economy is going strong and our “shooting wars” are at a relative lull, but a lot of people are still feeling pretty cranky with one another and downright unhappy with our national state of affairs.
Politics is the art of coming together to find solutions, but political campaigns are, by their nature, pretty divisive. These days we seem to take unusual satisfaction in fracturing along political fault lines. I’m guilty of it, too.
Which is why a day of picnics and parades, not politics, is a fine way to celebrate our nation’s birthday.
My family and I were pleased to spend our Fourth of July out on the beautiful shores of the North Fork of the Newaukum at a big picnic held by our friends Tyson and Nina Jensen. Food was brought and shared. Games were available for old and young. We played with people we knew and people we had just met. We talked about life but not politics. We learned things. We cringed over our culture’s overblown controversies of the moment. We laughed. We commiserated, teased each other, built one another up. We felt better about things, such as they are, and such as they will be.
It’s worth celebrating these reminders that there’s a lot that unites us. I think in a time of discord, we all need to work on finding those things that connect us. Our social ties are getting frayed, and if we want to keep this flag flying, we need to work on mending it.
Fortunately, we have a guide for that, and it’s dated July 4, 1776.
While our famous founding document is all about independence, you’ll notice something important if you read it to the very end. (By the way, reading the full text of the Declaration of Independence aloud is a rewarding annual tradition. You should try it.)
After listing their grievances, and saying how they regret the need to separate, the signatories of the declaration declare that they speak for the people of the colonies as they announce themselves independent from England.
And then they do something that binds them together in a powerful way that still resonates today, writing these remarkable words: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
It’s clear as day right there: Our land of freedom and individual rights was literally born with these men (and the women who were indispensible to this whole fledgling nation) pledging to one another their lives, reputations and their worldly possessions. They weren’t joking. They faced execution for treason. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, they had to hang together, or they would surely hang separately.
It makes me wonder. What, today, makes us Americans? Is it birth alone? Or is there a shared quest and responsibility that comes with citizenship? You can see a hint of that in the pride and excitement shown by immigrants who go through the process to become naturalized. Choosing this nation, striving to become a full member of it, and being chosen to be an American is a modern vestige of what those Founding Fathers did when they threw in their lot together.
But the rest of us don’t have to make this choice, nor do we pledge ourselves to work together with our fellow Americans.
Perhaps we should.
What if all Americans, on their entry to adulthood, like our revolutionary fathers two and half centuries ago, had to “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor?”
What if we earned full citizenship only with that level of somber but thrilling commitment?
If we’re parenting well, we tell our children that before rights come responsibilities.
As an American, what responsibilities are you shouldering to earn the rights that we all enjoy? What are you doing to build up your family, community and country? (Fighting about politics probably shouldn’t be at the top of the list — but fighting for your values by working arm-in-arm with your neighbors of all political persuasions definitely counts.)
The alternative is to be like a spoiled child, raised in wealth and luxury, never learning to give back to others as much as he receives — loudly clamoring for what he wants, complaining about momentary deprivations, talking constantly about what he claims as his birthright, but refusing to take up the weight of duty to maintain those rights.
Adulthood and sacred honor sounds like a better choice.
America has never been perfect, but it is still a great nation and a world-changing idea. We’ve fixed problems and come closer to our founding promise over the years.
There’s still room to improve, however, and we have to keep moving forward. This nation won’t last if we put it on cruise control. We all need to put our hands to the wheel, together, to make this a more perfect union.
We can do it. We have to.
Let’s follow in the steps of our Founding Fathers, who knew that some things are worth fighting for, together.
Brian Mittge is proud to be a Chehalian, an American and an imperfect but improving human here on God’s green earth. Drop him a line at email@example.com.