America has a birthday. How people celebrate their birthdays tells us much about them. What is their identity? What do they value? How do they see the course of their life? And what meaning or purpose do they find in their lives, if any? This is true not only of individuals, but even more so of countries. So, as we celebrate the 236th anniversary of our founding, it's an appropriate time to make these reflections. Yes, it's great to also have barbecues, picnics, parades and fireworks. But patriotism is more than hot dogs and flags. It's also about reconnecting with our core values.
One of the key principles in the story of American independence is solidarity. It was the spirit of solidarity that brought us together, from vastly diverse communities with significantly different economic interests, to engage in a common venture for liberty. Far from being enemies, liberty and solidarity go together. Solidarity nourishes liberty, because each person's rights are secure when everyone feels a common interest in protecting rights. Liberty, in turn, nourishes solidarity, because liberty provides the dynamism and prosperity that make common life possible. Both liberty and solidarity, however, have a common enemy: hate. Suspicion and fear breed hatred of people who are different, because of race, religion, culture or other factors. In fact, one of the key themes in American history has been the struggle between fear and solidarity, or liberty and hatred.
Suppose, for example, you were living in the American colonies in 1770. No one could assume that, somehow, the 13 British colonies from the Gulf of Mexico to the coast of Maine could become one independent nation. There was a general sense of being "American," but this competed with other identities. One might identify primarily as a Virginian, a New Yorker or a Pennsylvanian. Often, the strongest political identity was being English, or a British subject. For all 13 colonies to break away from the British Empire in a united effort, and to remain united afterward, was serious and difficult project. In the face of the nearly overwhelming power of the United Kingdom and other world empires, it did become clear to the colonists that "united we stand, divided we fall." Even after independence, the 13 ex-colonies would have fallen into never ending mutual wars and other forms of strife, leaving them prey to conquest. Hence, the colonies did not just become independent states, but United States. Through the kind of brotherhood built only on battlefields, as well as through successful revolutionary rhetoric, we did forge a spirit of solidarity. This solidarity ultimately allowed these little colonies to grow, and eventually become the most powerful country in the history of the world.
American solidarity, however, was far from perfect. Racial divisions and prejudice undermined the struggle for independence from the beginning. Slavery and accompanying belief systems of prejudice prevented the full integration of the capacities of all the colonists, black and white. African Americans served ably in the Patriot cause, such as Crispus Attucks in the Boston Massacre, but racism generated resistance to using African American talents to the full, with an official order banning the admission of blacks, slave or free, into the Continental Army in 1775. The powerful divide between colonists and Native Americans also worked to the Crown's advantage, with some Native American nations fighting for the British. The inability to generate full solidarity across color lines hindered our struggle for liberty. Likewise, in our 236 years after independence, America has struggled with centrifugal forces of a diverse society. We have always had to wrestle with the temptation to turn fellow Americans into an "Other." The paranoid fetish for imagining that some minority is trying to "take over" the country has been directed at Irish Americans, Eastern and Southern European immigrants, Catholics, Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, Jews and many others. Both Christian believers and atheists can experience discrimination, depending on the differing communities or social circles to which they may belong. Today, some o f the most powerful hatred is directed against LGBT and Muslim Americans. The recent shooting of a lesbian teenage couple in Texas indicates in the most dramatic fashion how low hatred can sink. And across the country, perfectly peaceful and law abiding American Muslims have faced scores of hate incidents at mosques, ranging from minor vandalism to arson and serious harassment.
What do these examples tell us? America's War for Independence is not over. We are still fighting the deeper battle of 1776. We have thrown off external obedience to an overseas ruler. But what about the tyranny within? We no longer have Redcoats occupying our physical homes, but we have prejudice, xenophobia, fear and suspicion creeping within our inner selves. True strength comes from within. And America can never be strong on the basis of military weapons or a large GDP alone. Our strength comes from the mutual acceptance of all Americans, religious or secular, rich or poor, native born or immigrant, or white or person of color. We cannot just celebrate a past declaration of independence. We need to renew a perennial declaration of independence from hate. As Jesus said, "The truth will set you free." As we celebrate the Glorious 4th in our parks, stadiums and backyards, let's have this spiritual Declaration of Independence root itself in us as well.