On this fourth of July holiday, our media are once again cloaked in an unhealthy mix of corporate partisanship presented as patriotism. The fireworks display tonight in New York (broadcast on corporate network NBC) is the “Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks” featuring a “Norwegian Epic” and a performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Why on earth should this combination of Scandinavian mythology and right-wing Protestantism parade as patriotism? Because the sponsors of the event—Norwegian Cruise Lines, Jeep, Levi’s Inc., and Macy’s—willed it thus. More egregious is today’s full-page article in the South Bend Tribune (A10) that reads “IN GOD WE TRUST.” This paid advertisement (which is not labeled as such) features quotes from Ronald Reagan and the Bible along with Thomas Jefferson and George Washington to make it look like a kind of evangelical Christianity lies at the basis of our constitution. May I inform Hobby Lobby CEO David Green that our founding fathers would blanch at his effort to cast patriotism as Christianity? Many of them professed what we would now label Deism, or a kind of “natural theology” akin to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s solitary vicar (from Emile, 1762) who eschewed church-going. Although Jefferson considered Jesus the teacher of a sublime and flawless ethic, he also revered the power of reason. In a letter to his nephew Peter Carr in 1787, Jefferson advised, “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god.”
This year’s corporate promotion of the 4th of July focuses naturally on spending. The bulk of messages on our airwaves and newspapers make the linkage between the holiday and the economy explicit, with special sales of computers, electronics, summer clothing, and cookout foods that one can purchase today. A person who is unfamiliar with our popular culture might well confuse the celebration of political freedom from the despotism of the King of England (the original meaning of today’s holiday) with the consumer’s freedom to buy stuff.
The Declaration of Independence (1776), reprinted in American newspapers, broadcast on TV, and in parades from coast to coast today, is a fine testament to the demand for political and religious freedom that gave our country its original identity. But it is dated. The writers were most concerned to clarify political issues of the late 1770s, and focused primarily on distinguishing the new colonies’ political status as independent from the English crown and its laws. Our nation has more pressing issues to contend with today. Primary among them is our commitment to civic equality. We are, after all, not only the land of freedom but also the land of opportunity, an opportunity based on a belief in human dignity and equality. All of us—whether our families have been in this country since the 1600s, the 1990s, or the 1850s, like me and the Day-Danford-Somerville clan from which I hail, owe a debt to that principle that helped our families get started here. We owe a debt of equality to newcomers to our nation, and the economically disadvantaged.
The bill of rights (1791) proclaims “The right to be treated equally before the law, regardless of social status.” Yet the news abounds in reports of Americans whose lives are negatively impacted by inequalities, whether they be driven by economic status, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic identity, or simply one’s name or accent. The latest brouhaha over immigration law and the Arizona governor’s racist remarks on our Mexican neighbors put us to shame.
On this fourth of July, let us reflect on a more important icon of our national identity, the Statue of Liberty. Established in 1886 with a gift from the French Republic, this statue presents a more fitting, because more modern, concern for the American dream, and reminds us that we are a nation of immigrants dedicated to freedom and equality for all.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
‘ With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
–Emma Lazarus (1883) “The New Colossus,” inscription on base of Statue of Liberty, New York, New Jersey.