Monday, July 4, 2011
I am an American. I love my country. I am also fascinated by it in many ways. But my study of American history is still very much a work in progress. I have learned enough to be hesitant about making any rash or sweeping statements about what is a very complex national experience.
This makes me feel peculiar, however, given the fact that it appears to be a very "American" thing to make vast and grandiose proclamations about the importance and significance of the United States. I have no desire to underestimate that significance. But I have read a great deal of history--enough to know that the character of peoples and nations is something that develops over a long period of time. The United States emerged in the midst of a historical epoch that began, for the West, in the 15th century and that--arguably--is just now coming to an end. The period that styled itself "the modern world" (and that was in reality a phase of Western European civilization) is ironically coming to an end just at the time when Western ideals, technological innovation, and lifestyle have become "standard" for the whole earth.
We are entering a new, globally interdependent phase of human history; indeed we have been for some time. Whether or not this is a good thing, and what social forms it takes, remain to be seen. The United States, as a people who self-consciously formed their own nation and institutions, paved the way to the eventual collapse of modern imperialism and the foundation of constitutional republics all over the world after World War II. The new nations look to the American experiment for their example; indeed, the success and persistence of American institutions have inspired the world.
So what does this mean about the significance of the document whose anniversary we celebrate today? Looking at the great scope of human history, my inclination--following the Chinese proverb--is to remark that it is too soon to tell. America is still a new country, relatively speaking. Many of the political experiments taking place in different parts of the world today involve ancient peoples with long memories. Much remains to be seen.
To a significant extent, however, the enduring legacy of the United States remains in our own hands. For in the midst of the various circumstances and ideas that contributed to the birth and formation of this country, there is a core ideal that became a working political hypothesis on this day in 1776: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights....
Much depends on the continued working out of this core American ideal of "equality"--I believe that we are still very much in the process of trying to understand what it means. It is imperative that "equality" be conceived and lived as a matter pertaining to the dignity of every human person, and the solidarity of human beings in a dedication to the pursuit of the common good. We must also look more deeply into the relationship between human dignity and the mystery of "being created"--that there is a Transcendent Source and Purpose that ultimately gives significance to human dignity and human rights.