My father usually reads the Declaration of Independence out loud when we get together on the Fourth of July. We’ll do it again this year, if only to savor the beauty of the cadence of those words.
It will be a happy day for the kids, full of sparklers and hot dogs and marshmallows, and it will be good to have everyone together again. I don’t want to muck up the fun with any heavy irony. But the Declaration doesn’t fall on my ears the way it used to.
When I was young and listened to the Declaration of Independence, I used to feel pride and gratitude for our country, flaws and all; but now, when I think of what we have become, I am so mired in anger and dismay. The “long train of abuses” that stirred the founding fathers into revolution are nothing, nothing at all, compared to the abuses the vulnerable suffer from our elected government now; and the people who cry “America!” the loudest let these abuses happen without a murmur, or heartily cheer them on.
We are still the freest country in the world, at least for some. We are still more or less at peace, at least within our borders, at least for some. We do have a free press, at least for now. It’s not nothing, that our nation manages to transfer power peacefully every election. Nobody dies when we throw out one bum and bring in the next. But good grief, I’d like to see more than that. I’d like to see that it’s still possible to bring about change using the system the founders designed, but the gears have become so clogged with money and lies, it barely functions When something good happens — when a decent, moderately virtuous candidate does appear, or a sensible bill gets passed, or a monstrous one is defeated, it’s almost like a fluke. We’re the land of ten thousand monkeys, and the democratic process is a typewriter. And if you think I’m speaking about just one party, you’re willfully blind.
Maybe a different document would be better to read.
A few years ago, we passed the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. In this astonishingly compact speech, Lincoln looks back at our founding, and then he looks around at the rubble and the blood-soaked ground.
And then he does something extraordinary: he looks forward. He says,
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
He stood on the blood-soaked ground, and he looked forward.
Now we hear the words like “freedom” and “unity” coming out of the mouths of people who despise freedom, who put all of their effort into subverting unity, who see journalists as the enemy, who treat asylum seekers as criminals, who tell us we must violate our consciences in the name of patriotism, who welcome true enemies as logistical allies. And in response, we’re squandering our freedom of speech on petty name-calling, on projectile milkshakes, on melodramatic photo ops. I don’t want four more years of the gorgon, but I don’t know if I can bring myself to vote for one of these soulless, preening candidates just to chase him away.
But Lincoln stood on blood-soaked ground and looked forward.
So I can’t hear the Declaration of Independence and feel pride in our country — not today. But I can hear the Gettysburg Address and take courage. I can see the struggle and grief of the nation, suffering now as it is, and I can look forward.
If they could recover from that, then we can recover from this.
Those of us who still love the Constitution are the living. We’re the ones who understand that the country is not great, but it’s not over yet. It is still, as Lincoln said, “unfinished work.”
To the pro-lifers who refuse to be overcome by an obscene and hysterical mob, and who refuse to let the phrase “pro-life” be co-opted by racists and misogynists: you are the living. To the volunteers who knock on doors and mail flyers and work the phone banks to rally support for a candidate who can’t win but isn’t a monster: you are the living. To students who grind your eyeballs into your law books because you want to make things better, want to defend the innocent: you are the living. To those who see their government crushing the poor, and work doubly hard to build them up again: You are the living. To teachers who day after day shrug off the pressing cultural gibberish because you know your children need to hear the truth; to citizen scholars who patiently call into radio shows and wade into battle on Facebook and Twitter, correcting and correcting and correcting the lies: you are the living.
And to ordinary citizens who pray for our country every day — not because we’re on the side of God, but because God will come to our side if we beg — we are the living.
This country is unfinished work. The battle isn’t over yet.
A version of this post ran in the Register in 2013.