This birthday of the United States finds us in a divided state.
We cannot seem to reason together or share a view of what defines America. Polarization is promoted from the top by a president who seems only the president of his base and it runs all the way down into gerrymandered state legislative districts.
There is reason to feel discouraged about the condition of our republic, but it's also important to understand that our divide is not new. The United States has endured and overcome much worse. The Civil War, of course, but also bitter disputes involving the oppression of Native Americans, the rise of the Robber Barons, Prohibition, the Great Depression, civil rights, women's rights and the Vietnam War.
In many ways, our divisions are less consequential today than they have been for most of the nation's history. The difference today is that political divide-and-conquer tactics have been amplified by social media and a 24-hour cable news cycle to create the sense of a nation at odds and growing apart.
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It is not true. We are not red and blue. We are Americans. We revere and vigorously exercise our right to disagree and protest. But much more unites than divides us. Almost all Americans share a devotion to individual freedom, justice and an equal opportunity for all.
This Fourth of July appropriately falls in the middle of the week. It is not simply an extended weekend, but a deliberate pause in the midst of our daily work and our ever louder disputes. It is an opportunity not only to celebrate America, but to reflect on what it means to be American.
We have inherited the reward of the Founders' courage — freedom. And we can keep it only by continuing their faith in the power of unity to protect the individual and the strength of our collective wisdom to lead us beyond the limits of our biases and misconceptions.
There are many ways to reflect on where we are and where we came from this Fourth of July. Perhaps the best reflection comes from reading the Declaration of Independence.
But on this Fourth in this divided July we suggest going online to listen to remarks that Duke Law professor Jedediah Purdy made in 2009 as he discussed his book "A Tolerable Anarchy: Rebels, Reactionaries, and the Making of American Freedom."
His book explains that the signers of the Declaration were not only taking on the might of England, but they were also taking a frightening leap into a dangerous new form of government. The great political thinkers of England, Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke, thought of freedom as something conferred after a government and culture were established. The colonists reversed that. They said freedom must come first and government should grow out of it as a way to sustain freedom.
There was, however, a problem — slavery.
Purdy's book explores how it was an escaped slave, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, whose life story and insight overcame that contradiction. He saw the Declaration as a promise and the Constitution as our evolving effort to make that promise a reality. Purdy writes that Douglass' epiphany grew out of the courage he summoned to physically challenge the man who owned him. In that action Douglass realized that freedom requires a "willingness to insist on what seemed overwhelming right and true in itself."
It took a rebel slave to help us fully understand the meaning of American freedom. It is not about being free of responsibility. It is taking responsibility for one's freedom. It is not something we do alone. We do it together, holding each other up, keeping each other free.
Purdy suggests that if there was to be a Declaration of Independence for our times, it should be a Declaration of Interdependence, a recognition of the needs and obligations that unite us.
This Fourth of July, may we all have the courage to sign on.