Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

The Spirit Of ’76: Life, Liberty, Pursuit Of Happiness

By FATHER DOUGLAS K. CLARK, STL, Commentary | Published July 8, 2010

As we approach the Fourth of July, Independence Day, Americans cannot help but be thankful for the rich blessings that God has bestowed on the United States of America since that day in 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia. That great document based the people’s right to alter or abolish a foreign and oppressive government on “certain unalienable rights” with which they had been endowed by the Creator.

Every year since 1777, in times of peace and war, boom and bust, the American people have celebrated the events of July 1776 much as John Adams predicted they would—“by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade with shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

One might note that in recent decades “shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations” seem to predominate over “solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty.” Since July 4 falls on a Sunday this year, the solemn acts of devotion” will probably be better attended than in other years.

What is it that Americans celebrate on July 4? In the first place, we celebrate our political independence, our identity as a separate nation, free to act as the American people see fit. But, perhaps more significantly, we celebrate the vision that guided the Founding Fathers and has guided this nation for 234 years.

That vision begins with the acknowledgment that “all men (in the inclusive sense) are created equal,” a truly revolutionary truth. It continues with the recognition that all people “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” which are sublimely said to include “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It concludes with the acknowledgment that when government becomes destructive of these rights, it is the “right of the people to alter or abolish it.”

As we have noted in past years, “the struggle for equal rights continues in many areas,” despite the Declaration’s claim that all are created equal. And the “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” which the Declaration asserts to derive from the Creator himself, have been eroded over the years and need increased protection.

It is a sad fact, as we have pointed out year after year, that the right to life is no longer guaranteed to all, but is legally restricted to those already born, while those nearing the end of their earthly lives face an increasing danger of being euthanized, at least in some jurisdictions. The nation is still fighting foreign wars without always reflecting sufficiently on the right to life of  “the other side,” including the rights of innocent civilians, who too often suffer “collateral damage.” And the Federal government and many states, including Georgia, still impose the death penalty—“killing people to show that killing people is wrong.”

Liberty—freedom—is precious. Individuals and communities thrive when they are free and wither when they are not free. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” as the abolitionist Wendell Phillips noted in a speech before the Massachusetts Antislavery Society in 1852. When the American people have been vigilant in the defense of liberty, they have accomplished great things, such as the abolition of slavery. When they have not been so vigilant, they have allowed their liberties and the freedom of others to be restricted, sometimes without even being aware of what has transpired. They have also, at times, confused liberty with licentiousness. True freedom, as we have often observed, requires the vigilance of self-discipline.

The golden phrase, “the pursuit of happiness,” implies the freedom to pursue whatever, in one’s own estimation, constitutes happiness, provided that the rights of others are respected. For Christians, happiness (“beatitude”) is defined as life in Christ, led according to his teachings (as summarized in the Beatitudes). There are many indications that the freedom of Christians to pursue happiness in this distinctive way may be threatened by an increasing tendency to define happiness in an exclusively secular way.

In any case, however one defines happiness, it cannot long be guaranteed as a right, when liberty is at risk and life itself is not regarded as an inalienable right always and in every case. May Americans recall on the Fourth of July, 2010, the Spirit of ’76, the spirit of independence based on humble acknowledgment that our rights are God-given and inherent, and not “man-given” and subject to arbitrary revocation by any human power.

Father Douglas K. Clark, STL, is pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Port Wentworth and editor of the Southern Cross, newspaper of the Diocese of Savannah, where this editorial was published July 1.