Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Independence Day

Every Fourth of July I begin my day the same way, I read the entirety of the Declaration of Independence. It is a yearly reminder to me that this nation was founded on the spirit of liberalism, and that to be a liberal (a true liberal) in this nation is to keep the foundational spirit of our country alive. Conservatives may wrap themselves in the flag… liberals can wrap themselves in the Declaration.

Every time I read the Declaration, I am amazed by how it embodies the liberal spirit of relationship ahead of rulership, the liberal spirit of principles ahead of beliefs, the liberal spirit of the good of all ahead of personal good. I am amazed by how controversial it is. I am amazed by who signed it.

The men who signed the Declaration (on August 2nd, not July 4th) were not wealthy men, they were middle class. Only a few would have been considered millionaires, and they barely. They were not “elder statesmen”, for their average age was around 33. Ben Franklin was the old man of the group. They were not visionary idealists, as their stripping the condemnation of slavery out of Jefferson’s original draft shows. They were flawed, normal, middle class men. But they were liberals. Radically so.

By signing the document in early August, each of the signers was signing their own death warrant, and they knew it. I’m sure a few groaned at Ben Franklin’s morbid jest as they signed, “We must all hang together, or we will assuredly all hang separately.”

Signing that document did not begin the Revolutionary war; it had been waging for over a year. The outcome of the war was far, far from assured. When George Washington read the document to his troops on July 9th of 1776, they were still in training in New York. Very soon thereafter, the British Army landed on Long Island and spurred this untested force into the only military maneuver they could execute well… retreat. Washington reported that he seemed to be losing whole regiments to desertion in the face of the enemy advance.

So, signing that document really could have led to them all being hung, whether they “hung together” or not. No amnesty in the aftermath of a lost war would have spared those who committed treason against the crown so egregiously.

I believe that the Declaration of Independence is a primary example of one side of Liberalism… and that is Liberalism in Opposition. We liberals can be very comfortable with this role, of opposing the “history of repeated injuries and usurpations”. In this mode (which modern liberalism has been in for almost 40 years) we love the thought of dedicating to the cause “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” because all that we risk is ourselves.

It is a comfortable place for us to be, in opposition.

But, this is only one half of what it means to be a liberal. What happens when you win? What happens when we who have set our self-view, our tactics, our understanding of the world in opposition suddenly find ourselves not in opposition, but in governance?

One of the most tragic things that can happen to a liberal opposition organization or movement is to win.  Then, we find we have nothing to oppose but ourselves.  Look to the later life of Thomas Paine as an example of this tragedy.  He spent the rest of his life seeking what he could oppose.

It is not that liberals cannot govern… we certainly can. But we have to realize that it takes a 180 degree shift in tactics, relationships, and purpose to govern from what it takes to stand in opposition. In the aftermath of the American Revolution, we saw what happens when liberals fail to make that shift and try to govern while remaining in opposition… we call what resulted the “Articles of Confederation”, and a more flawed form of governance would be hard to find in human history.

So, this Independence Day, as the movements that keep alive the liberal spirit in our nation are facing the very real (and possibly tragic) condition of being asked to set aside their opposition and accept the mantel of governance, perhaps we should set aside our readings of the Declaration, and begin to really and truly find inspiration in the document those same liberals produced when they had to accept the mantel of governance… the Constitution of the United States.

The Constitution is a flawed document, lacking the purity of principle and purpose that rests in the Declaration. It is a document that reflects painful compromises and half measures, that only begins to live up to the promise and vision that Jefferson saw when he put pen to paper. Yet governance is about compromise, it is about finding the mean between us, and about holding that mean together.

For if we liberals cannot, in the next few years, find a way to govern… then the ideals we have long fought for the opportunity to put into place “will assuredly hang separately”.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Yours in Faith,


2 Thoughts on “Independence Day

  1. What a great tradition. I think I will start this in my home, too. Very well stated post.

  2. I thought I should clarify what I meant by the comment in the first paragraph of being “a true liberal”. I put that in there on purpose, but did not explain, and it would have distracted from the essay to do so. So, I will reply to my own essay.

    Liberalism has very little to do with specific positions on issues. The issue bound liberals of today might well be the conservatives of tomorrow. If one defines their liberalism by their positions on specific issues, then you may actually not be a liberal.

    Liberalism is less about belief and more about methodology. The liberal is one who accepts that there are no absolutes when it comes to humanity; that answers change and shift as situations change and shift. Liberalism understands that our world is composed of a wild variety of colors, not just black and white or even shades of gray. There are no fixed right vs. wrong, left vs. right, us vs. them for the liberal.

    True Liberalism is not guided by beliefs, but by principles. How those principles manifest themselves changes with each situation. How those situations manifest themselves depends greatly upon our perceptions, and the liberal not only understands this, but seeks to actively see the world through many different lenses of perception.

    Liberalism, I believe, is the practical extension in the world of the principles of post-modernism.

    In this time, there are some commonly held beliefs among “liberals”, but those beliefs are not liberalism. The liberals of another generation may believe things that we would find abhorrent. But what makes us liberals is not what we believe, but how we come to those beliefs, and how we allow those beliefs to change and to change us.

    Yours in Faith,


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