OCPA: Finding Unity on the Fourth of July

By OCPA Executive Vice President Trent England

It has become popular to say, though it isn’t true, that our nation is more divided than ever before. Americans who lived through the 1850s, 1830s, and even the 1790s would all disagree (and I’ve purposely left out the time of our actual Civil War). In fact, talk of breaking up the union began before the Constitution was even ratified.

On the other hand, nasty politics is nothing to be proud of and, taken to the extreme, is one of the ways great nations destroy themselves. If we want our nation to continue, and to continue to be great, we all have work to do.

Thankfully, the answer to this challenge is embedded in our nation’s beginning and our national character.

What we celebrate on the Fourth of July is not just independence. Most nations have a kind of anniversary celebration, but ours is different. Most celebrate a military victory or political act, like a peace treaty or a new constitution. We celebrate the Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration was a protest against British tyranny and a rallying cry for American patriots, but it was and is a lot more than those things. It was a mission statement for a nation so young it wasn’t yet fully born, and it rests on the claim that human beings can and must reason together if we are to have legitimate government.

If there are “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” then politics is not simply about strength and winning. If human beings are “created equal … with certain unalienable Rights,” then no one of us, and no group of us, has any inherent right to rule over anyone else. We must have government by consent, and whatever government we form must respect the rights of individuals.

The other side of this human equality is examined in The Federalist Papers–newspaper articles written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay in defense of the Constitution. Madison, in particular, points out that just as we should celebrate and defend our human rights, we must also recognize and guard against our human weaknesses.

All this amounts to a powerful dose of political humility. Consider the Declaration’s explanation of itself: “a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes….” In the midst of a shooting war, the American Founders thought it important to explain themselves. They took time to craft a reasoned argument for what they believed was right.

The Declaration certainly doesn’t sound like modern politics, where everything gets chopped into noisy sound bites or snarky tweets. It’s easy to blame cable television and social media, but what most shapes our political conversation is what we believe about ourselves and our fellow Americans. Are we all in this together? And do we owe it to those around us to make our best argument, every time?

A good argument, after all, starts with humility, with “a decent Respect” for those around us. Why do I want you to change your mind unless I do, actually, care what you think? Making this kind of an argument also takes courage because it puts my own beliefs in a position to be tested and challenged.

President Coolidge described the American Revolution as the result of “the informed and mature convictions of a great mass of independent, liberty-loving, God-fearing people who knew their rights, and possessed the courage to dare to maintain them.” There is no time like the present to rededicate ourselves to being people of such convictions and courage. And a little humility, too.

Trent England is the Executive Vice President at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (www.OCPAthink.org) and hosts The Trent England Show on 1640 AM “The Eagle.”

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