Growing up in the small town of Champaign, Illinois, the Fourth of July was one of my favorite holidays.
I vividly remember the excitement that went along with our local Independence Day morning parade. Every year, much of the city gathered to watch the procession of fire trucks, retro cars, motorcycles, and floats. I’ll never forget the sirens that blared in my ears and the friendly faces of people in the parade whose eyes caught my own as they tossed a little extra candy my way.
It was a family affair. One of the fondest of my childhood. And it taught me to love America.
At night, my father would drive our family to a parking lot near the University of Illinois where the night’s fireworks were shot off. The flashing lights, bursting colors, and resounding sizzle will be forever stamped into my memory.
Of course, it was never complete without the grand finale where a torrent of light suddenly transformed the night into day.
Now a couple of decades older, my thoughts on the Fourth of July have taken a turn.
Independence Day is still one of my favorite holidays.
But I’ve realized that all the pomp and circumstance that comes along with it is pointless. Unless that is, Americans regain our virtue.
Now virtue is a topic that seems to have been largely lost in our public discourse. When is the last time you heard a politician discussing the importance of virtue and morality?
For my part, I can’t remember.
Part of the Fourth of July celebration is wrapped around the idea of American exceptionalism. That our country is freer and more prosperous than any other and that our independence deserves an annual commemoration.
And America is exceptional, in some sense. We have had the largest economy of any country in the world since 1871. We are the world’s military superpower and we save lives by leading the world in medical research and development.
However, America is also number one in more insidious ways.
The United States is the world’s largest consumer of illicit drugs.
The U.S. has the world’s highest rate of children living in single-parent households. A staggering 23%.
We are the world’s number one origin for victims sold into human trafficking.
The U.S. also produces the largest amount of pornography, creating an estimated 89% of all porn.
Indeed, America is exceptional. Exceptionally full of vice, that is.
Yet the exhortation to virtue, and its essentiality to American freedom and prosperity, is replete in the writings of the founders.
President George Washington wrote in his Farewell Address on September 19, 1796, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports… It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”
Our second president, John Adams, echoed that sentiment.
In a letter that he wrote to the Massachusetts militia on October 11, 1798, he said, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion… Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
For the Founding Fathers, the primary reason why America was exceptional was that she was virtuous. Because her reason guided her passions and appetites, she was set apart.
But should America devolve and begin to indulge “iniquity and extravagance… this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world,” as John Adams presciently prophesied.
It’s vital to recognize that America’s greatness does not depend upon the next election, nor does it depend on individuals filling in the correct bubble on their ballot once every two years.
America’s greatness depends upon her virtue.
And that means America’s future lies not in the current or future occupant of the Oval Office, but in the hearts of her people.
As Aleksander Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.”
This Fourth of July, to properly celebrate America, live a life of virtue.
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