The Source of Liberty

We go to press as the summer solstice sets in. Now the days grow shorter even as we anticipate more of them in the sun. Gas prices are swelling, but so are the fruits whose luscious juice we savor. Body time seems to slow as if to indulge the soul’s permission to just let things grow — and be what they are. Once again the season tempts us to imbibe the sumptuous cocktail of nature’s color carnival. Everything is on display.
It is a time for noticing. Windows are open. More sounds and smells impose themselves. Many are out to watch and be watched. It is also a good time to reflect. Not everyone welcomes the riotous outdoors. Downtime also means taming the wild whirlwind of our over-texted, over-packed routines, chilling out and chilling in, just to enjoy the most basic, simple things. Not the least of these are our foundational freedoms, which the Fourth of July invites a graced nation to celebrate.
“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” – how beautiful an inspiration! No consensus or majority vote was needed by the founders to proclaim these rights unalienable. Just as self-evident to the signers of the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July, 1776, was the truth of the Source of all rights. Honor compelled them to credit their Creator for endowing them therewith and, if necessary, to die in their defense. What about us on this “Fourth”?
The choice, diversity and entitlement triad have seemingly out-paced in popularity the traditional tenets of civic religion — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness —judging from the homage paid the new mantra in political discourse and textbook alike. We note no particular urgency, in an age of historical revision, to reference the Author of all rights: in a word, God. We no longer pledge our lives, fortunes or sacred honor. We sue.
Have we forgotten something? Choice, diversity and entitlement are anemic substitutes for the vigorous moral character of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: like replacing the bald eagle on our national emblem with a chicken. Choice certainly is a sign of a moral life – so long as one chooses life first, or is given the chance to live. Choose death – or (what amounts to the same thing) sin, slavery to addiction or other toxic alternatives – and you lose both life and liberty. In short, it’s not that one can choose; it’s what one chooses.
Is just being diverse a value? If so, then the class clown might head the honor roll. Diversity is often a codeword for moral relativism: nothing is “right” or “wrong,” just “alternate.” If everyone is married, then fornication provides a little diversity, like a few vandals might for a community bored of too many law-abiding citizens. And isn’t there more diversity in the world whenever Al Qaeda expresses its “point of view”?
The “pursuit of happiness” implies some initiative on the part of the pursuer. But in an age of asserting grievances, gratification becomes an entitlement. So then if you are not happy, it is the liability of another: your spouse, your parents, your congressperson, your insurer, your church. You don’t earn your own happiness – your lawyer does.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
As Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” unfolds, set in the year just before the Declaration of Independence, we might as well be reading of our own world as much as that of our founders. What shaped their choices about where to lead the nation, however, was not self-absorption with their own power to choose or to be diverse or to claim entitlement – but the value of what they chose and, even more importantly, to Whom they owed the gift of being free to choose. If we are to have a future, perhaps that is what we most need to remember.

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