Today is our Independence Day. No other event in these United States so celebrates disloyalty and allegiance, sovereignty and the disobedience of a sovereign, severance and unification. We are a country born of protest, but we have settled into an apathetic dependency, expecting benefits for ourselves and disinterested in contributing toward collective equity. Our political debates have little hope of true conversation in them. On average, less than half of Americans even vote.
Our revolution began due to the disregard of colonial opinion by a distant parliament and king, no representation, a selfish empire deaf to our expanding self-interests. Colonists petitioned their grievances over taxes and control to the king as loyal subjects to the crown, never intending absolute independence. Armed riots in Boston were answered with British troops. The King of England eventually issued a proclamation repressing colonial rebellion, definitively announcing that the American colonists were now nothing more than traitors should they neglect their obedience to his rule. His decree spoke only of devotion and allegiance, not context. Almost a year later, on the 4th of July, his order was met with the Declaration of Independence. War was entered as a just cause for liberty, but at its heart it was a conflict over loyalty and voice. We became free, yet kept some in bondage.
We have since expanded, taking the lands and independence of others, fought ourselves over secession, been reunified by force, have endured as a country composed of radically different politics, been polarized as red states and blue states, but have remained one nation. It was on July 4th, 1861 that President Lincoln sent his Message to Congress asking them to fund the war against disunion, and it was on July 4th, 1863 that General Lee withdrew from Gettysburg, a defeat from which the Confederacy would never recover. Two years later Lee swore an oath of allegiance to the Constitution of the United States again.
Our Pledge of Allegiance was written by a Baptist socialist minister in 1892 without the mention of religion, one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all. Politicians added “under God” 62 years later, but it is not required when spoken. Immigrants must swear to entirely renounce all allegiance and fidelity to their homelands, bearing true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the United States when they become citizens. Our military oaths also state our loyalty specifically to that same document, enough to die for it. It is our Constitution that defines our beliefs and there is much to be proud of written in it. It continues to improve. What is now our common law was not always our common sense. The right to vote was essentially what our nationhood was founded on, but it took 82 years to allow voting rights for Americans of color, and 132 years to extend the same to American women.
As we gather in fair grounds, waiting for darkness, and waving our flag, we might take this year to evaluate the true state of our independence. Do our representatives represent us in an era of corporate power? How have dogmatic religions influenced politics? How independent is our information? What freedoms are at stake? What is it we all fiercely believe enough to give our lives for now? It should be the same beliefs we are willing to give the lives of others for, but I’ll bet it isn’t. America has been at war for ten years, but few of us have been fighting it.
On July 4th, 2005 I was a Marine in Iraq. Mortars fell into the courtyard beside our patrol base, shaking dust from the sandbags filling the windows. We sang the national anthem with a feeling that we, as Americans, finally understood what it meant. We were defending the new Iraq from its enemies, and we were also the empire that some Iraqis were fighting in the name of their own independence. The symbolism was not lost on us.
Last week, eleven American servicemen were killed in Afghanistan. They had pledged allegiance, swore an oath, citizen soldiers in our volunteer force. They died for us and we should ask if we stand for anything in Afghanistan worth their lives. Were they justly sacrificed by our Constitution, or by our complacency? Let’s spend some of our pride in liberty by asking ourselves what we fight for. Since World War II we have allowed over 100,000 service members to die in wars we haven’t even bothered to declare. We have also fought for the freedom of others.
When you enjoy this day with family and friends, watch the rocket’s red glare and let the children be thrilled…but remember that this is a celebration of a revolution’s result. Take a long moment to remember how your independence was earned, by whose blood it is kept, and the responsibility you have to represent your opinion to those who now govern your liberty, and that of others.
We remain a people powerful with ideas and capable of munificent grace. The immensity of choice protected by the law of our land continues to evolve with us. Let us advance our democratic experiment to form a more perfect union. The strength of the wolf is the pack, one nation, and the strength of the pack is the wolf, one vote. That is what we fought for.