Over the next several days, we’ll gather with family and friends at baseball games, swimming pools, parades, and cookouts. As we take a break to watch fireworks, it all serves as a much needed break from our toxic national discourse and political climate defined by name calling, cheap talking points, and posturing void of problem solving.
As we take this celebratory pause and reflect on our nation’s founding, may we shrug off the boring cardboard caricatures we have constructed of our founders and be reminded of the profound humanity and complexity of our nation’s history.
We have choices before us on these steamy, sunny, summer days in 2017 that can be informed by the choices our Founders faced in the summer of 1776.
We tend to forget that Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John and Abigail Adams, Alexander Hamilton and the rest were as impassioned as they were imperfect. Throughout our history some have glorified the founders as gods while others condemn them as monsters. Still others forget their relevance to us altogether.
But the choices they made centuries ago not only laid the framework and ideological battles we live in and participate in today, but also provide lessons for how to tackle the very real choices we face as a divided nation today.
It’s easy for us to forget the complex nature of the men who signed this document that forever altered our world and conception of human liberty and freedom. They didn’t agree on much. In fact, the early years of our republic were defined by bitter rivalries – some which infamously proved fatal. But united by the concept of human freedom, our founders sought to conceive a structure of government that ensures all people could seek out human flourishing in the ways their consciences dictated.
Many of the men who signed the Declaration did so believing they were signing their death warrant. As we eat hot dogs and watch fireworks, we can fall into the trap of assuming America was always going to win the Revolutionary War. But at the time, they were declaring war against the most powerful military in the world. By all accounts, they should have lost.
Nevertheless they decided it was worth risking their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to defend something that important – the God-given freedom to govern our own destiny.
These earliest American patriots united together to fight to the death for the right to disagree with one another about the most important parts of life.
They debated viciously over the enslavement of millions of fellow human beings made in God’s image, arguing over the nature of God, heaven, hell, and human nature in the process. They debated the structure of government, what individual rights should be protected, how much power should be given to each level of government. Virtually every aspect of government and American life was up for debate.
Yet, they did not declare independence and fight for freedom because they agreed on everything. They risked their lives and fought, because they didn’t.
They actively chose to work together, as fellow countrymen and patriots, for the cause of freedom.
Hanging in my sons’ nursery is one of my favorite Ronald Reagan quotes –
Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.
It serves as a reminder to me that the ideas and philosophy that created our nation are different from the rest of the world and civilizations throughout human history. We are not a nation because of our shared race, ethnicity, or history. We are a nation because of a shared idea – enshrined by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 – all men and women are created equal and have the right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
But President Reagan’s words also serve as a reminder of what our Founders had to do so many centuries ago and how we must continue to fight for the cause of freedom in our nation today. Freedom is not guaranteed to always exist in perpetuity in America. It is something that must be chosen daily by our citizenry. Just as the Founders faced unique choices in their time that passed freedom on to future generations, we face analogous choices today.
We must choose between furthering partisan tribalism in which we demonize and seek to destroy those who disagree with us or seeking a shared patriotic vision of vibrant yet respectful disagreement. We are learning how toxic our society becomes when we assume the worst versions of our opponents’ arguments and overlook our shared values and common interests.
We must choose between treating citizens as pawns for pundits and political talking points or recognizing and protecting the dignity of every human life. We can view the vulnerable mother facing an unplanned pregnancy as a political commodity or two human beings in need of protection and care. We can demonize a particular community or group or we can grapple with the humanity of men like Philando Castille, unjustly shot in cold blood, and his girlfriend and her four-year old daughter who witnessed this American tragedy.
We must choose between fighting to merely shut down and shut up our ideological opponents or fighting for our opponents to have the freedom to express their ideas in the public square. It’s a choice between echo chambers where we insulate ourselves from the “other” or a marketplace of ideas where we engage one another with passionate persuasion and respect.
We must choose between lobbing attacks against each other on social media, thinking national political debates can solve all of our problems, or serving and loving our neighbor no matter how different we are or how much we disagree.
We must choose between perpetuating divisiveness amongst our fellow citizens or choosing to sow seeds of understanding and compromise.
The choices before us today have great consequences. But our nation and those patriots who have come before us have risked much more than we’re being asked to risk today.
We must unite as we’ve done before, even against impossible odds and bloodshed. As President Lincoln put it, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Let’s get to work.