by Rabbi Nancy Kasten
The meme spread quickly after the Supreme Court overthrew Roe v. Wade: “4TH OF JULY HAS BEEN CANCELED DUE TO A SHORTAGE OF INDEPENDENCE. SINCERELY, WOMEN.”
Independence Day, 2022 has come and gone. Some Americans lived through it happily and safely. Others fled from gunmen or from states where they were denied life-saving medical treatment. Division between and among Americans is exposing us to the very “dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within” that our independence aspired to address. The recently concluded Supreme Court term fostered plenty of discussion about the Constitution, but little about the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration of Independence lays out both the rationale for our nation’s independence from England and the justification for our continued vigilance in protecting it. It’s worth our time to attend again to its words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
When a holiday that celebrates our nation’s independence becomes a day of mourning for American civilians killed by other Americans at a Fourth of July Parade, it underscores our nation’s failure to achieve a safe haven for all who reside here. If we are to do better, without further bloodshed and loss of life, we all have to be better patriots. Our love of self, God, and party cannot be divorced from our love of our fellow Americans, our compatriots.
The late Republican-appointed Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor exemplified this kind of patriotism when explaining the 1992 Supreme Court ruling on Planned Parenthood v. Casey, “Some of us as individuals find abortion offensive to our most basic principles of morality. But that can’t control our decision. Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code.” Justice O’Connor distinguished among her responsibilities to herself, her God, her political party, and her country; and as a Supreme Court justice she knew which responsibility came first.
Justice O’Connor believed the Constitution provided means that could be adapted to serve the ends envisioned in the Declaration of Independence—a country that would be free and safe. The Declaration could not be amended, but the Constitution could and should be amended when necessary to protect the unalienable rights of all human beings, protection the founders believed would make this new country safer and better. The Constitution gave us the ability to non-violently adapt our government as needed for an unknown future, which undoubtedly would include resources and technologies the founders could not imagine. And it gave Americans the ability to create and re-create our country through representational government, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Today’s Supreme Court majority was created by a president who intentionally conflated identity politics with patriotism for his own benefit. The only way to show our patriotism now is to reject this conflation and to elect leaders who do the same. When the ballot does not offer that option, we have to decide which candidate will be more likely to change policies and systems that currently undermine our ability to celebrate and strengthen our nation’s independence in health and safety.
The Fourth of July does not commemorate our independence as individuals. Rather, it is a reminder that we Americans are responsible for our own destiny as a collective. That is why the meme at the top of this page, while pithy, is misdirected. As it turns out, the 4th of July was in fact cancelled and curtailed for thousands of Americans because an independent 21-year old obtained assault weapons without a license or a background check and committed a terrorist act against his neighbors. How many more incidents have to join the “long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object” before we insist that our government “provide(s) new Guards for (our) future security”?
The new guards can be provided under the auspices of our current government, but only if we submit our individual identities to the wellbeing of this country. We need to think of freedom FOR as much as freedom FROM. If we do so, the vision of the founders can allow for us all to flourish—as one human nation—all genders, faiths and colors. Then we will earn our place as descendants of those who signed our nation’s founding document, which closes as follows:
“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”