The Meaning of the Fourth in Three Words

A silly story is told about a little boy asking his father a question, “Dad, do they have the fourth of July in England?” “Yes, oh yes, son they do have a fourth of July in England. They just don’t celebrate it.” In a way, that apocryphal teasing exchange between a father and his son summarizes the uniqueness of the fourth of July for Americans. It is a uniquely American holiday.

The fourth of July in all other countries is a date on a calendar, just like any other. There is no reason at all for the British or French or Chinese or Russians or Brazilians to celebrate the fourth of July. But in America there are many reasons. I can think of at least three of them.

The fourth of July reminds us of our history, or at least it should. It is the day set aside as the punctual moment in history when the United States of America declared its independence from the British crown. It was not beginning of the story or the actual end of the relationship, but it is a point in time when Americans can celebrate their birth as a nation.
Every year in Charlottesville, Va., the largest number of people on single day, take the oath of allegiance as American citizens on the fourth of July. This must be a sight to behold, and it would have made the founders proud. They would nod and say, “Now that is America.”

Our history is not a perfect story. There was a Civil War fought between the states over differing perspectives concerning what freedom means. Lincoln would call the nation back to the Declaration of Independence to remind Americans that all people are created equal by God.

In the twentieth century, following two world wars, America would examine itself the hard way and come to the conclusion that liberty and justice are for all people. There would be ugly scenes where some radicals would not accept this view as a vision of what the nation should become. Now that sentiment lingers in the minds and hearts of a fading number of citizens who cannot understand the true meaning of freedom.

The fourth of July has come to mean more than a day to celebrate a historical event. It is more than just about history; it is a focus on liberty. The American narrative, although not a perfect one, is really about liberty and freedom. With all of our outcries of dissent today and with the personalities literally shouting at each other on talk shows, we sometimes forget that we live in a country where this kind of expression can be offered.

One night recently, I was remoting through the channels on my television and parked a few minutes to listen to the debate between two rather animated guests on a talk show and found myself amused by the sparring between them. As the program was coming to a close for this particular segment, the host thanked the guests and they both smiled at each other and shook hands as if they had just played a round of golf together.

This is just one illustration of something people outside our nation sometimes cannot understand. In America, dissent is almost a sport. Most of the time, not all times for sure, it is good natured and a reflection of the citizens in a high-tech dialogue. The fourth of July underscores that freedom. It is precious indeed!

For Christians, true freedom is found in Christ Himself. “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” That is a higher and holier concept of freedom we should celebrate every day of our lives. But on the fourth of July, we can pause and thank God for liberty that comes from the laws of the land, no matter how imperfect they may be.

Yes, the fourth of July is about history, our history. It also about liberty, our liberty, but is also is about responsibility. Reportedly, following the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the irascible old Ben Franklin said, “We have given you a republic, if you can keep it.” Our history and our liberty carry a heavy sense of responsibility. That is what “Ole Ben” was saying is that often quoted remark concerning the revolutionary movement in America.

Every generation has a price to pay for the liberty we enjoy. Sadly, for some it was the ultimate sacrifice of the giving of one’s life, such as in World War II, in the Pacific or in Europe. For most Americans, the price is exercising responsible citizenship such as voting. I still have trouble understanding why some people never bother to register and vote. It is almost un-American.

History, liberty and responsibility are the three words which come to my mind as we celebrate the Fourth of July. Americans aren’t better than any other people in the world but for providential reasons, we have been blessed with a history that tells our story, a story of liberty and responsibility. Perhaps Viktor Frankl was right when he said, “Americans need a Statue of Responsibility on the west coast to balance the Statue of Liberty on the east coast.” That was one European who may have understood us better than we understand ourselves.

Executive Director of Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions

State Missionary Rick Lance was elected in June of 1998 to serve as executive director of the State Board of Missions and treasurer of the Alabama Baptist Convention. Rick leads state missions efforts and facilitates Great Commission Ministries for the Convention’s 3,200+ churches and more than one million Alabama Baptists.

Rick and his wife, Pam, are members at First Baptist Church, Montgomery. They have two daughters.

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