I love gathering with family and friends to enjoy grilled hot dogs, burgers, and smoked ribs and to watch fireworks on the 4th of July while listening to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (and smooth Jazz). It’s also a pretty cool perk to be in Los Angeles, where you can do all of that at the beach. I’m not a missionary, but I have traveled some and preached in hard places overseas. Every time I come home, Bible in tow, with tremendous religious freedom to preach it, I am mindful of my blessings to be an American. So I am happy to celebrate the day my nation celebrates its independence.
However, as I write this article, I do so as much more than an American citizen. I write as one with a dual citizenship—an earthly one, which is American, and a heavenly one, secured for me by Christ. So on the one hand, I have an American passport that’s stamped, “Love your neighbors” (Matthew 22:39), and I have a heavenly passport stamped, “But above all else love God because he first loved you in the giving of His Son” (1 John 4:19). So as Al Mohler describes it, my true allegiance is to God, and that allegiance is doxological, but my primary responsibility to my nation is missional. It is to love my neighbors well by speaking the truth to them in love (Ephesians 4:15) and to prioritize the greatest truth, the gospel. I must tell them that Jesus is their true King and that he demands their full allegiance, and He gave his life on the cross to secure it for all who will turn to Him and place their trust in Him for the forgiveness of their sins.
Since our mission entails caring for the welfare of our nation (Jeremiah 29:4–7), there are hard truths Christians need to share with our neighbors. We need to tell the truth that Americans didn’t discover this land. We, like so many historic powerful nations, are a people-conquering nation in the vein of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome (Daniel 2, 7). One of the saddest truths we have to acknowledge about our conquest is the Trail of Tears. To save their land, the indigenous tribes appealed to the Supreme Court and won their case that let them keep their lands from Michigan, Louisiana, and Florida. An angry President Andrew Jackson would have none of that. He scoffed at the court’s decision. He sent in the army, which took the land through brutal savagery, killed many of its inhabitants, and forced approximately 100,000 peace-seeking survivors from their homelands. They had to walk over 5,000 miles to find a new home, and over 5,000 men, women, and children died during the journey.(1)
Another hard truth we can share is that our war for independence wasn’t fought to gain freedom for all Americans. Every American today should clearly hear the painful irony in Patrick Henry’s famous cry for war:
For on my part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery.” . . . [I]t is now too late to retire from the contest. . . . There is no retreat, but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! . . . Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.(2)
While denouncing his own oppression, Patrick Henry, like Thomas Jefferson, practiced an evil racialized form of human trafficking called chattel slavery (Exodus 21:16; 1 Timothy 1:10). When questioned about the moral contradiction of seeking to fight to the death for his own freedom while keeping slaves, Patrick Henry confessed, “I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them; I will not, I cannot justify it.”(3)
No one captured the height of our American hypocrisy more poignantly than Christian abolitionist Fredrick Douglass. Invited to address a white audience celebrating their independence on July 5th, 1853, Douglass chided them with the following:
Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? . . .
The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. . . .
The American church is guilty, when viewed in connection with what it is doing to uphold slavery; but it is superlatively guilty when viewed in connection with its ability to abolish slavery. The sin of which it is guilty is one of omission as well as of commission. Albert Barnes but uttered what the common sense of every man at all observant of the actual state of the case will receive as truth when he declared that “There is no power out of the church that could sustain slavery an hour, if it were not sustained in it.”(4)
The simple truth is that everyone wasn’t freed in our self-declared nation of the free. It would take another war, a bloodier war, a civil war, to be fought a hundred years later for blacks to gain freedom from slavery, now celebrated on Juneteenth Day. Tragically, the freedom from slavery won on battlefields was soon lost in political battles in the halls of Congress. Our lawmakers legalized a form of oppression, segregation of black Americans, that was immeasurably worse than taxation without representation. So critical legal-race battles were fought by the likes of Thurgood Marshall a hundred years after the civil war. Their quest for justice for all secured civil rights for black Americans.
So when we celebrate our independence, let’s acknowledge that it’s complicated, and let’s at least be mindful of the victories that led to the freedom of all Americans. Let’s be thankful for the brave soldiers like Crispus Attucks—the first soldier to die in our war for independence—the heroic abolitionists who risked their own lives to help slaves gain their independence, and the civil rights leaders who marched peacefully while at times being brutally beaten and who fought in courtrooms so that we could become in fact what we professed ourselves to be: the land of the free. Let’s love our nation well this 4th of July and spend time reminding ourselves how our nation has more truly become the land of the free for all.
(1) “Trail of Tears,” History.com, updated April 20, 2023, accessed June 28, 2023, https://www.history.com/topics/native-american-history/trail-of-tears.
(2) Patrick Henry, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,” speech to the Virginia legislature, March 23, 1775, available at https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/patrick.asp, accessed June 28, 2023 (emphasis added).
(3) Patrick Henry to Robert Pleasants, January 18, 1773, in The Abolitionist, New England Anti-Slavery Society Committee, ed. (Garrison & Knapp, Boston: 1833), 155, available at https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Abolitionist/JK0SAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PA155&printsec=frontcover, accessed June 28, 2023.
(4) Fredrick Douglass, “What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July,” speech in Rochester, NY, July 5, 1852, available at https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/speeches-african-american-history/1852-frederick-douglass-what-slave-fourth-july/, accessed June 28, 2023.
1. Read Isaiah 1:14–16 and lament all the pain that we caused indigenous people and people whom we enslaved.
2. Thank God that through His hand of providence, America became a nation that codified principles of religious freedom.
3. Let’s thank God for all those who bravely fought in wars, who peacefully protested, and who contested unjust laws in courts so that America could live up to its ideals of being a land of the free.
4. Pray that God would guard the Christian freedoms we enjoy today.
5. Give thanks for the food and enjoy time with family and friends.