July 4 is coming up, and with it more controversy emblematic of these recent decades. Many generations in every place have observed the 4th with patriotic parades, picnics, decorations, concerts, and fireworks. All in celebration of a unifying myth that the war for American independence from tyranny was driven by our desire to form a “more perfect union” of representative democracy in which all “men” were equal before the law. It was not required that everyone agree about what that meant, and with communication less instantaneous than it is now, it was easy to assume that how I understood it was probably the same as how you understood it, so we could celebrate together as a nation as if in accord with one another. Needless to say, the Civil War interrupted that ideal, but it was soon restored with a new veneer of patriotic idealism aided in part by the Spanish American War and the growing industrial might that gave America greater standing in the world. Reinforced by two world wars through which America became the dominant world power, it was not seriously challenged until the civil rights movement and Viet Nam.
The unifying July 4th myth is harder to celebrate these days. Some whine about the Revolution being a middle class war waged on the backs of the poor, or that it was a rich man’s war waged on the backs of everyone else. The disgrace of slavery is swung at it like a wrecking ball. Accusations on behalf of American Indians, women, indentured servants, and unwanted immigrants are not far behind. In the meantime, remnants of Civil War animosities intrude along with elements espousing white supremacy. The instantaneous ubiquity of 24 hour news coverage and the chaos of social media means their voices can be heard throughout the land, each competing ever louder for attention and influence.
As for me and my ancestors, if they were involved at all in the Revolutionary War, they were wearing red coats and saluting Gen. Howe. We didn’t come over until after the nastiness of the Civil War had subsided, and the coast was clear for taking the railroad to get some free land recently liberated from the Indians. On top of that, most of the clergy in the denomination I serve were loyalists who fled to Canada or back to England. One might wonder whether I have anything legitimate to say, but I’ll go on as if I do.
And here’s the point: The unifying myth is good and we should celebrate it with gusto. Because it’s a myth it isn’t required to be literally true, but it is required to bear truth. The truth it bears illuminates the highest and most honorable of American aspirations, even if they are yet unrealized. Making them the subject of July 4th celebration keeps them in the public eye, reminds us of what we have always hoped to become, and says something about how far we have to go to get there. It isn’t so much a celebration of what we have done, but of what we have begun to do, at the cost of great human suffering, and what we have yet to accomplish.
July 4th will inspire many patriotically themed prayers to be lifted up in places of worship, and in public places. Maybe we cold amend them to go in a slightly different direction, as in these words cadged together from one in the Book of Common Prayer:
Grant, O God, that our holy and life giving Spirit may so move our human hearts as we celebrate the Declaration of Independence proclaiming our highest aspirations for living in a free and just society, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace.