Some of us have a habit of taking stock of our lives when those annual reminders known as birthdays roll around to tell us we’re not getting any younger; and the more often it happens, the more urgent becomes the attention we are willing to give to areas that need to be addressed, not only for our own benefit but for that of the people we will eventually leave behind.
I don’t know how a nation does the sort of soul-searching individuals do. Certainly, there is no shortage of volunteers to make the assessment and pronounce the cures for all ills discovered in the process. But the agendas attending these pronouncements are generally quite transparent; and those agendas all too frequently have little to do with a sound understanding of what we once were, what founders set out to create, or what changes in the initial vision have been necessitated by the movement of times, ideas, philosophies, and the means by which any of these are communicated, instantiated, or defended. Yet where we go from here has to begin with where we’ve come from and how we got from there to this point, unless one holds the notion that history is all irrelevant–in which case there is no way to discern either where we are or where we ought to go.
Many of us learned and even memorized the words of such an assessment made eighty-eight years into what became known as the Grand Experiment. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address included several lines that have never left my memory:
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, can long endure.
How long, and under what sorts of duress and circumstances, can the vision endure? How does it fare? I suspect that how we answer such questions has more relevance in a presidential election year than at other times. But it seems that we are very close to a point in national/cultural history at which freedom and equality are seen by too many on either side of a great political divide as irreconcilable pursuits. What I fear is that freedom is viewed only as the absence of restraint on what one desires, regardless of the merits of those very desires. One wants to be free from restraint to become as wealthy as possible; another wishes to engage in whatever pleasurable activities happen to be in vogue, create whatever relationships strike the fancies of the moment. To such a mindset, equality consists only in the opportunity fo each person to do the same with his or her freedom.
How we negotiate the claims of freedom on one hand and the guarding of equality on the other has much to do with what we believe freedom to be and to what extent we will protect the rights of others from being violated in our chosen pursuits. I would also suggest that it has to do with what we perceive human beings to be in the first place. This, honestly, is the source of my deepest concerns for our future: we have lost the grounding of both the Declaration and the Gettysburg Address, namely that we are the intentional creation of God. I am hard pressed to think of solid grounding for human dignity, freedom, and therefore mutual concern and protection absent this foundation. This is not to suggest that people without such a belief are unable to act in ways that are honorable and responsible to freedom and equality; there are ample examples of such people, and I am thankful for the fact. Whether they can give a satisfying reason for their nobility is another question, and it is a question being more and more frequently asked by another generation, one which finds anything having to do with sacrifice and hard work too much of an imposition on their freedom.
This is not intended as gloom and doom. It is yet another call to Christian people of all political stripes to pay greater attention to our humanity than to our party, and to engage in the hard work of helping a culture think through its options. Are we up to it?
Oh, and Happy Birthday to us!