Three challenging readings for this Independence Day

  1. Frederick Douglass’ timeless speech “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro”

Note Douglass’ use of scripture to illuminate a likeness between the United States and Babylon, between enslaved Africans and Old Testament exiles…

To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, 0 Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”

…and the identification of what the moment required — not convincing argument, but scorching irony –…

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

…and the (unfortunately misplaced, I think) hope in the end.

…Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from “the Declaration of Independence,” the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. — Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are distinctly heard on the other.

2. Wilfred McClay’s piece in National Affairs, “How to Think about Patriotism”

Note McClay’s identification of two distinct features of American patriotism. First, a tension that is not unique to America — one between the chosen and the given, the aspirational and the actual, the particular and the universal –…

Patriotism, in the American context, is an intricate latticework of ideals, sentiments, and overlapping loyalties. Since its founding, America has often been understood as the incarnation of an idea, an abstract and aspirational claim about self-evident truths that apply to all of humanity. There is certainly some truth to this view, but to focus on it exclusively ignores the very natural and concrete aspects of American patriotism: our shared memories of our nation’s singular triumphs, sacrifices, and sufferings, as well as our unique traditions, culture, and land. These two types of American patriotism are undeniably in tension, but the tension has been a healthy one throughout our history; our nation’s universal ideals have meshed with, and derived strength from, Americans’ local and particular sentiments.

… and second, the “historical ballast” that has provided a distinctively American way of holding these two strains in dynamic equilibrium and creative tension.

In America, patriotism and nationalism are not locked in mortal conflict, though they are often in tension. It is a creative and beneficial tension, however. One of the greatest American achievements, both politically and socially, has been creating a political and cultural setting that can comprehend and support, to the greatest degree possible, the multiple natural loyalties of the human person without requiring its inhabitants to choose between and among them. Broadly speaking, an American is not forced to yield his loyalty to his locality, family, state, religion, ethnic group, or race to be an American — and he is no less an American for declining to do so. And he can be dedicated to the principle of America while at the same time loving the nation itself, with its culture and history and love of the land.

As to how to solve the undeniable problem of the general erosion of patriotic sentiment in this country, how to inculcate patriotism in rising generations of Americans, how to reconcile a vigorous conception of assimilation with the pluralism to which we are so deeply committed — those are other matters, and very grave concerns indeed.

In addressing these concerns, two things must be kept in mind. First, it must be acknowledged that these tasks are well worth pursuing. In fact, they are essential. The kind of patriotism that the United States has brought into being is one of the bright lights of human history, and we should not allow it be extinguished by mere inattention or a perverse self-hatred, born of our colossal ignorance of history. Second, we must remember that the answers to these problems will involve culture as much as, if not more than, they will involve creed.

We are not lacking in an awareness that all men are created equal. Where we are lacking is in remembering, and teaching others to remember, the meaning of Lexington and Concord, Promontory Summit and Menlo Park, Independence Hall and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Iwo Jima and Pointe du Hoc, and countless other places that represent moments of spirit and sacrifice in the American past. It is these moments with which the American future, if there is to be one, will need to be conversant, and will need to keep faith. It is only in tending both facets of patriotism — love of America and love of her ideals — that we can nurture our civic virtue, and elevate our sense of belonging, to live in accordance with the best thing in us.

(A couple more thoughts on this piece: First, by implication, if one’s patriotism represents only one side of this or the other, that would not necessarily be completely un-American, but it would at least be deficient and not living up to what is distinctively American. Second, that deficiency of either side (those who emphasize givenness and reality over consent and aspiration and vice-versa) goes a long way toward explaining accusations of being un-American lobbed by some against those on either side of the tension that McClay explores. Third, by educating readers on what has been a distinctively American form of patriotism, McClay’s piece actually provides a very good example of an essay that goes beyond diagnosis to provides a dose of the medicine needed to cure the illness.)

3. Mark Galli’s piece in Christianity Today, “A Great and Terrible Nation”

While Galli demonstrates that he’s conversant with debates about the founders’ intentions and religion, note that he reframes the the discussion of whether America is, or ever was, a Christian nation…

What should give Christians pause is the fact that devout Christians justified the conquering and often the slaughter of Native Americans as well as the brutal enslavement of Africans in our land. These are not incidental moments of injustice, but deliberate and steady, justified decade after decade with the Bible in one hand, and expedience in the other, by millions of believers.

The point is this: Can we in any way, shape, or form say that America was founded on Christian principles when its very existence and prosperity were set on a foundation of unimaginable cruelty to millions of other human beings?

…before calling us to continue loving it, reforming it, and praying for it.

But let us not proclaim that we are a Christian nation founded on Christian principles. That is a lie—one might even call it a blasphemy. America is a great and terrible nation, like so many others (“terrible” meaning having done dreadful things but also “formidible in nature”). Let us continue to love it, as we love our flawed families and friends. Let us continue to serve it as God leads us to. Let us continue to reform it, as has been the practice of every generation. And most of all, let us continue to pray for it, that God would continue to have mercy on us and on our children, and on our children’s children to the third and fourth generation.

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