Every year, someone will complain that we’re losing sight of what this day means in the United States. Someone always complains about that sort of thing for a holiday.
So what is the spirit of Independence Day in this country? Is it a celebration of war? Is it a celebration of the military? Does grilling in the back yard somehow violate the struggle that many had to give us that freedom, and others later to keep it?
As I write this, I’m a few hours from hearing the sound of fireworks in the distance . . . the snap, crackle, and pop of freedom. If we take anything for granted this day, it’s this: that fireworks are fun. In some countries, people flinch at the sound of explosions just like those. The bursts of light and chemicals don’t herald entertainment, but instead promise terror. They don’t release pretty lights. They produce sights of horror.
In some countries, “patriotic” days involve military displays in front of the dictator’s palace, and not ordinary citizens waving their country’s flag proudly. These days aren’t joyful; they are, at best, merely about the satisfaction of being on top, rather than ruled by the previous regime.
In some countries, food is a problem. War tends to make poor farmland, even if your government isn’t confiscating everything, including food sent in from other countries. Clean water isn’t taken for granted, but a resource so precious that it has to be rationed.
It seems such a small thing to celebrate this day with blasting dangerous chemicals for a temporary light show, or roasting a great feast in the back yard. And yet, these little things point to the big things. Our freedom means we don’t have to use those chemicals to make weapons; we don’t have a shortage of food, and so we can have extra and invite our neighbors to join us; and we have so much clean water that we can hook up a sprinkler in our yard and let the kids run through it.
And, most of all, those neighbors CAN join us, and are not shunned because of the color of their skin, the accent in their speech, the politics they follow, or the place where they worship.
“America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just. It certainly does condemn anarchism, and it does also by inference condemn atheism, since it clearly names the Creator as the ultimate authority from whom these equal rights are derived. Nobody expects a modern political system to proceed logically in the application of such dogmas, and in the matter of God and Government it is naturally God whose claim is taken more lightly. The point is that there is a creed, if not about divine, at least about human things.”
G. K. Chesterton: What I Saw in America, 1922.
Chesterton wrote about the United States in the same way he wrote about everything: as someone attempting to explain something to someone who has never experienced that thing before. It allows for the reader to experience at least a faint stirring of wonder, even over familiar things; and as Chesterton was not American, visiting America was something he had never experienced before either.
And, as with many visitors from Europe, he had to grasp what exactly made the US so different. The US isn’t some superior nation; but he noted that it is special, special in a way that no other nation, even now, can quite grasp.
We do not have any of that nonsense in England because we have never attempted to have any of that philosophy in England. And, above all, because we have the enormous advantage of feeling it natural to be national, because there is nothing else to be. England in these days is not well governed; England is not well educated; England suffers from wealth and poverty that are not well distributed. But England is English; esto perpetua. England is English as France is French or Ireland Irish; the great mass of men taking certain national traditions for granted. Now this gives us a totally different and a very much easier task. We have not got an inquisition, because we have not got a creed; but it is arguable that we do not need a creed, because we have got a character. In any of the old nations the national unity is preserved by the national type. Because we have a type we do not need to have a test.
So that creed does not make us better, unless we are bettered by it. We are not Americans simply because we are born in America; we are if we live up to America. We celebrate Independence Day by celebrating with family and friends and neighbors.
We celebrate our nation not by praising the government that rules it, but instead on the groups that make up our nation.
It’s easy to love something distant and impersonal. It’s easy to praise the king, the president, and the dictator; perhaps we might even mean it. It’s even easier to celebrate the nation that protects you from something else.
The truest affection is when we love our families and our neighbors, who happen to be around us because they happen to be around us. If we aren’t able to put those we know over the entire nation, then there is nothing to unite that nation.
It’s something that St. Augustine wrote about a millennium and a half ago, in The City of God: “And therefore God created only one single man, not, certainly, that he might be a solitary bereft of all society, but that by this means the unity of society and the bond of concord might be more effectually commended to him, men being bound together not only by similarity of nature, but by family affection.”
There is nothing wrong with devotion to one’s country; as St. Thomas Aquinas put it, “Wherefore just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so does it belong to piety, in the second place, to give worship to one’s parents and one’s country.” Pope Leo XIII noted in his 1890 Encyclical Sapientiae Christianae that while the Church holds a higher place for a Christian than a nation, natural law shows that we should still be devoted to that nation if it doesn’t contradict God. Or, if you want an even more concise way to put it, Pope Pius X (in a French address on the occasion of the beatification of Joan of Arc, perhaps the best example of a Catholic patriot) said “If Catholicism was the enemy of the country, it would not be a divine religion.”
So, as is often said, Christians are resident aliens; we “participate in all things as citizens and endure all things as foreigners,” as is quoted in the Catechism.
In those other nations I mentioned before, the populace doesn’t have the right to voluntary association, except as permitted by the government. In those countries, patriotism doesn’t exist; instead, they have nationalism. Their national celebrations aren’t about rights and freedoms, but rather obligations. They can’t choose what they celebrate. In the creed of the United States, however, we are free to celebrate our friends and family, and wave our country’s flag not because we have to but because that flag says we come first.
To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men. Whether governments and people live up to this creed or not is, at least on this day, irrelevant. That creed exists, and exists for us; we do not exist for it.
So yes, today is National Barbecue Day. Don’t ever scoff at these small freedoms. They’re a direct result of the big ones. And sometimes, those big ones are very hard to see.