|Fireworks have become a worldwide phenomenon, and whether you are watching them in Beijing, Barcelona, or Buenos Aires, you need not know anything about the celebration itself to appreciate the dazzling display of color and light against the night sky. But if you miss the reason for America’s Fourth of July pyrotechnics, you miss her very soul, the indispensable and universal truths on which she was founded.
It began on July 4, 1776, when, against all odds, the courageous Continental Congress delegates declared their independence from the most powerful empire on earth. To their everlasting credit, they spoke in universal terms of “self-evident” truths 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.” And while “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,” they boldly pledged to each other “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” with “a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.”
For them it was not rhetoric but reality, and as they laid their lives on the line, Divine Providence did not fail them. Showered with praise after leading American forces to victory through the long and arduous war, General Washington refused to take credit. As he told citizens of New York City, “The illustrious and happy event, on which you are pleased to congratulate and welcome me to this City, demands all our gratitude; while the favorable sentiments you have thought proper to express of my conduct, entitles you to my warmest acknowledgements. Disposed, at every suitable opportunity, to acknowledge publicly our infinite obligations to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, for rescuing our Country from the brink of destruction; I cannot fail at this time to ascribe all the honor of our late successes to the same glorious Being.”
In so saying, Washington was exercising the very freedom that had been paramount among the rights he had risked everything to defend, as he proceeded to explain: “The establishment of Civil & Religious Liberty, was the motive which induced me to the Field, the object is attained, and it now remains to be my earnest wish and prayer that the Citizens of the United States would make a wise and virtuous use of the blessings placed before them.”
Sensing the potential worldwide impact of America’s establishment of liberty, Thomas Jefferson later wrote, “We feel that we are acting under obligations not confined to the limits of our own society. It is impossible not to be sensible that we are acting for all mankind.” Nearly two centuries later, Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act in which, as noted by Princeton Professor Robert P. George, “it recognized that religious liberty and the freedom of conscience are in the front rank of the essential human rights whose protection, in every country, merits the solicitude of the United States in its foreign policy.”
Professor George continued, “As the Declaration of Independence teaches us, prior to any laws made by men are the immutable standards of justice—standards by which we judge whether the laws are just and can rightfully command our obedience. These standards, of the equal dignity of all human persons, of their equal freedom, and of the accountability of government to the people, apply not just to our own laws but to those of other nations as well. As the United Nations recognized in its 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, religious freedom is an essential principle of justice, in all nations and in all ages. Our Congress said the same in the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. All of us have a duty, in conscience, to work for the religious freedom of all men and women everywhere.”
IOF President Brian Brown has urged us all to courageously stand up and speak up for religious freedom at this critical time. Inscribed on the entrance to the National Archives are these words: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Never have we needed greater vigilance to protect the precious freedom celebrated by our Fourth of July fireworks.