Never, I think, have we seen such controversy in the United States surrounding the 4th of July, the date of the declaration of the independence of the United States when we recall the Declaration document itself. I celebrated the holiday this year in Chicago with dear old friends. They have a boat and we watched the fireworks from out on Lake Michigan opposite Wilmette, Illinois Pier. Here are some recent bizarre news stories.
The Nike athletic company have just recalled a sneaker that featured the original flag of the United States, the Betsey Ross flag, with its thirteen stars and stripes. Colin Kaepernick, the noted football player/protester against racism, who famously practiced kneeling during the national anthem at games, protested about the symbolism of the sneaker. He claimed it was offensive to some because the 1776 flag was created during a time of slavery. No one had ever before identified this flag as having any connection to slavery. It was created by Betsey Ross from Philadelphia, more recently a feminist icon, who lived in Philadelphia!
Charlottesville, VA – the town where Thomas Jefferson lived – has suspended celebrating his birthday and replaced it with a holiday honoring the liberation of the city by the Union Armies in the Civil war.
Donald Trump has angered the Democrats by making the 4th of July celebration one with a celebration of the military by ordering the parading of tanks.
Israel celebrates the meaning of the Fourth of July in a special celebration in the Jerusalem Convention Center, with the Prime Minister and other government leaders in attendance.
We are living in a society that is losing its mind. A nation depends on being able to celebrate those who birthed and advanced it, even if they were human and indeed showed blind spots, and engaged in significant sin. Dismissing Thomas Jefferson – and Washington will be next – because they owned slaves, is a great mistake. Yes, owning slaves was wrong, but in that time, there was not yet the moral consensus to prevent it. Washington, according to his great biographer Flexner, was uneasy in conscience about slavery and freed his slaves upon his death. Jefferson did not do so. That said, these fathers of our nation are valued deeply because of the gains they had the vision and foresight to help create: in political liberty, freedom, and a system of government that contained checks and balances to limit the power of tyranny. There were also strong abolitionists like John Adams. However, the founders were leaders who advanced civilization and without them the very human rights that we value today may not have been enjoined.
There is today a deep anti-Americanism on the left. Those who foster this do not accept that the gains from the cultural developments in Great Britain and the United States were the keys to the elimination of slavery. The battle for such human rights did not come from Africa, East Asia, South Asia or any other society. There is much to celebrate and much of this cultural advance had roots in the Bible. In the Wall Street Journal from July 2nd this year, William McGurn (the writer of the paper’s Main Street column each Tuesday) wrote an article entitled, “A Kosher Fourth of July.” He amazingly documented that the ideas of freedom, liberty and justice celebrated on the 4th were symbolically tied to the Hebrew Bible. The Exodus freedom theme was embraced by both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin who proposed seals of the United States with symbolism from those events. Jefferson proposed the Israelites in the wilderness led by a the pillar of fire and the cloud; Franklin proposed Moses extending his hand over the Red Sea. This idea of the Exodus and the founding of the country went back to the Puritans. Martin Luther King also drew from Biblical themes and the Exodus for his civil rights movement. McGurn points to the amazing influence of the Hebrew Bible in America, for places, towns and more. Eric Nelson, Professor of Government at Harvard, argues in a similar fashion in his book The Hebrew Republic (2011, Harvard).
Major historical figures should be judged by whether or not they advanced civilization on the basis of the right values. Though we accept the separation of civil government from ecclesiastical government, we still seek a government influence by Biblical ideas; that all human beings are sacred, created in God’s image, with rights given by God. We seek a government that is a guard against tyranny and respects the importance of checks and balances. This is the government that was bequeathed to the United States by its founders. They are to be honored for this and we celebrate them on this 4th of July. As Franklin said after the Constitution Convention, we have been given “a republic, if you can keep it.” Keeping it is still our great challenge as the forces of the extreme left and right seek to destroy it and as the left seeks to discredit the people who bequeathed it to us. As an Israeli, I am grateful that we also benefit from the same republican roots in our society.