It’s the 4th of July weekend here in the United States, and I was thinking about the first time I truly fell in love with America.
It was during my first trip overseas on my own, at the ripe old age of 21, after a year of grad school at Westminster Theological Seminary. I was sitting in Trafalgar Square in London on Independence Day, after more than a month of backpacking through the British Isles. It had been a grand trip of personal discovery as I hitchhiked from town to town, ate my meals in open air markets, slept on church steps, and occasionally visited youth hostels to take a shower. During my stay in Scotland, someone had given me the book “When Free Men Shall Stand,” and I had been reading it off and on during my travels.
As my trip was coming to a close and I was hanging out in London waiting for a stand-by airline seat home, I finished the book while sitting in that park. For the first time, I started looking back at America through the filter of another culture and began thinking about what made America unique. Many, like me that day, never really discover America until they’ve had the opportunity to leave her.
At that time in the United Kingdom, Thatcher had not yet been elected Prime Minister and the Liberal Party was wrecking that nation with policies that destroyed personal responsibility and initiative. Even as a twenty-one year old, the culture and the people, by and large, struck me as bland, crass and dominated by attitudes of entitlement. As money was being sucked out of the economy to feed that sense of personal entitlement at the hand of big brother, hope and opportunity were dying.
As a result, the Brits had lost their spark and zest for life. It finally was dawning on me that those qualities are vital for any people. I also was beginning to realize that those qualities had persevered in America because of the ideals that sparked the revolution of 1776 and then the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Those ideals, in turn, were gleaned by our Founding Fathers from Biblical principles that gave birth to the first Constitutional Republic to grace the earth in nearly 3000 years (since dying out when Israel foolishly chose a King rather than continuing as a constitutional republic under the Decalogue through locally chosen representative leaders).
I very much had been a liberal activist until then, but started weeping that day as I suddenly realized how I had taken for granted – and been ignorant about – the principles in our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. I also began to appreciate how truly revolutionary the core value of our Founding Fathers had been: Mainly, that the liberty to pursue virtue requires limited civil government, and that the greatest danger to virtue and liberty is a government which assumes the prerogatives of individual responsibility under the guise of benevolence.
I came back a changed man.
Are there any other 4th of July stories out there, or tales about your own political and cultural epiphanies, as we celebrate Independence Day?
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For me, it occurred in May of 1986. I was returning from an extended deployment on the nuclear powered fast attack submarine, USS Permit (SSN-594). We had spent six long months away from the United States; much of the time cruising off the coast of Kamchatka (remember the Cold War?).
In any event, when we finally returned to the U.S. that early May morning, it was to Bangor, Washington. I had the pleasure of being stationed up on the deck as we were cruising slowly to our berth. The majesty of the mountainous terrain and green forest left me in awe. The slow cruise to port also led me to reflect on what a great country I served.
Most significantly, I was led me to reflect upon the fact that this country is great, not because I served it, but because it had served me. Not by entitlements or equality of outcome, but by the holding fast to the principle that each individual citizen has a God-given right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I think I fell in love with America when I took my son to Ellis Island where my family’s journey in the United States began. My grandparents, all from Ukraine, came here as young men and women with nothing much but hope for a better life. They were from little villages like the one you see in “Fiddler on the Roof”. They had endured persecution in a country run by tyrants who had little concern for justice. They had neither a good education or money, but were willing and able to work hard to provide a better life for their children in a country that revered individual rights and freedom.
As we looked at the pictures of the Ellis Island immigrants, I remembered the words of my grandpa Daniel (my son’s namesake). He told me that as the boat approached the New York Harbor, they all came up on deck from the steerage compartment. He said the Statue of Libery seemed to be welcoming them and he and many others were weeping as they passed by and their new journey in a new country was to begin. I appreciate so much what they went through to give their future generations a better life and I will never take my freedom for granted.
Excellent article, for the 6 months I read your blog and I want to thank you for your work
Independence Day 1976 was special day of remembrance to me. I was in the Navy stationed at Dam Neck, VA and on that special day, the 200th anniversary of the birth of our country, I had duty and could not leave my station. At the time I was disappointed but thinking back it was a small price to pay for Freedom. God bless America.