Each Fourth of July we, as a country, look forward to a day of celebrating our independence. A typical celebration is filled with parades and picnics, barbeques and beaches, friends and fireworks – just as John Adams suggested should happen. He wrote on July 3, 1776 that the signing of the Declaration of Independence should be a "great anniversary Festival" and "solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more." And so it is.
This great document of ours, with its rhetorical flourishes and its bold signatories has its unequivocal foundation in God as the endower of our unalienable rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Yet, how often, if ever, do we celebrate this great grace given to our country? How often, if ever, do we take the time to recognize God as the source of all of our freedoms? How often, if ever, do we acknowledge the responsibilities that come with these freedoms?
Each year our town hosts a parade on the Fourth. Always one of the most touching moments is when the veterans process by and as they do the crowd rises in unison and claps and cheers. These brave men and women, and those who have preceded them, deserved to be recognized for their bravery and their sacrifice. So, too, does the author of these freedoms deserve recognition.
This lack of recognition for God as author and sustainer of these freedoms has led to a cheapening and a demeaning of these freedoms to the point that most in our culture equate freedom with selfish indulgence. Freedom, as selfish indulgence, does not last and does not liberate. It is a fleeting and false freedom.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen eloquently warned of this inevitability. “The bold fact the enemies of God must face is that modern civilization has conquered the world, but in doing so has lost its soul. And in losing its soul it will lose the very world it gained. Even our own so-called liberal culture in the United States, which has tried to avoid complete secularization by leaving little zones of individual freedom, is in danger of forgetting that these zones were preserved only because religion was in their soul. And as religion fades so will freedom, for only where the spirit of God is, is there liberty.”
Thankfully we have the Church to remind us of what true freedom is and to help us order and direct our freedom for the greatest good. Pope John Paul II makes it clear, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought." That is true freedom, a freedom that frees and doesn’t enslave. A freedom that is selfless and not selfish.
In Gaudium et Spes the Church properly order these freedoms, “As citizens of two cities, we are to strive to discharge our earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit.” A freedom that acknowledges and respects our “dual” citizenship is an authentic freedom. It is a freedom that pierces the Heavens and is rewarded with grace.
Archbishop Chaput reminds us that freedom has a proper end. “The only question that finally matters is this one: Will we live wholeheartedly for Jesus Christ? If so, then we can be a source of freedom for the world. If not, nothing else will do.” This freedom, one worth living and dying for, is the only freedom that bears fruit. It is a freedom based in Jesus Christ, one that gives glory to God and aids in the salvation of souls.
So, yes, let’s celebrate our freedoms this Fourth of July. Let’s watch our parades, play our games, enjoy great food, families and friends. And let’s certainly stand up and heartily acknowledge our veterans. And let’s even cap the day off with an awe-inspiring display of fireworks. Let’s just do so with a deep appreciation and profound gratitude for the God of our freedoms, the God who loves and sustains us.