As I watched the children running through the grass, clutching strings tied to red and blue and white balloons, I was thankful once again to be an American, to live in this land of the free. The burgers were grilling, the buns waiting to be slathered with mustard and catsup. Folks mingled and chatted, then scooted onto wooden picnic benches. It was our annual church picnic, enjoyed this year on Fourth of July weekend.
And so far, the last I heard, we are still the land of the free. As I watched the children, I thought as I often do, how law protects us, allowing these children to run with such abandon and joy. I then recalled a few lines from the movie A Man for All Seasons, where Sir Thomas More challenges the thinking of his son-in-law Will Roper:
Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast– man’s laws, not God’s– and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
Our national Independence Day is a time to reflect on who we are as Americans, the stuff we are made of, the values for which we fight, suffer, and die. And while freedom from tyranny comes to mind, considering how our fledgling family of thirteen colonies protested British taxation, I usually return to the principle of law and order, something we happily inherited from British common law.
We have inherited a great deal from Britain in spite of our young rebellion over two hundred years ago: language, literature, philosophy and religion; traditions, secular and sacred; the desire for monarchy as seen in our icons, political and cultural; freedom of speech, especially in the media, freedom of thought and belief; the rights of property and families and individuals.
On July 4, 1776, in the “unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America” we held certain truths to be self-evident: that all men were created equal, that God has given them the right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that governments derive their power from the people, from the consent of the governed. And so to guarantee these truths, to protect the great heritage we received from Britain, and to thus ensure a peaceful democracy, the young union of States constituted a body of law.
Our nation would have not survived, will not survive, without the rule of law. Without laws, we, like young Roper, would have no protection from tyranny in all its forms, in all areas of our national life.
But changing the law is a tedious process. Perhaps this is wise, helping to ensure good laws. But we are a nation of do-ers, and we become impatient. We march with banners and placards year after year before the White House or the Supreme Court or Capitol Hill to challenge a 1973 law considered immoral and deadly not only to the individual and the unborn, but to our cultural climate as well. Killing the innocent, some of us cry, begets more killing of the innocent. Please change this law, we say with our signs and heartfelt tears.
We look to government to lead us and to govern with our consent. We demand they too be law abiding, knowing that if our governors are corrupt, so will be their governing. We demand of them what the law demands of us.
Internationally we are the saviors of the world. Immigrants throng to and over our borders, determined to touch and taste America, scrabbling over fences, tunneling under boundaries. Confident in America’s salvation, they give away their children, hoping they will have will have a better life, a peaceful life, or simply life itself. They are desperate, for they see us and other Western nations, as we truly are, the bearers of law and order, the protectors of freedom, the guarantors of peace.
And yet, they too must realize somewhere deep within that to break the law is to break America. To loosen and lessen, bend and broaden without the consent of the people is to invite disorder. And disorder leads to anarchy which demands, even welcomes, the bully, the tyrant, the one who promises to restore order, at a price. In America, these immigrants know as do we, that cutting ahead in line is unfair, simply wrong. And Americans are fair; they desire to right the wrongs.
So this year, this Fourth of July, 2014, I am thankful our nation is still undivided and that we still form a more perfect union, even if imperfect. I am thankful that our separation of powers (Congress, Courts, Presidency) though threatened, may right itself in the future. I am thankful that outrage may still be penned, if penned respectfully (with due regard to libel and slander), that the press’s freedoms are not always misused, that debate and dissent still breathes (although barely) in our land. I am especially thankful for the courageous men and women who fight for us, for our freedoms.
I am glad that God is not dead as has been pronounced, and that respect for all beliefs is honored if not always practiced.
I’m glad, too, that I for one do not take America for granted. I see her as exceptional, enlightened, and great. The rest of the world sees her this way, as a shining light that will not go out, a beacon on a hill. She may not be perfect, but she values life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. She rules with the consent of her people, a nation of rules that protects dissent as well.
And now as I write, I see in my mind (and my heart) the children running freely through the grass, their colorful balloons flying high.
Happy Birthday, America.