A New Birth of Freedom

It may appear mythical to younger readers (and some not so young), but there was a time, and not so long ago, when the Fourth of July was not a day of contention about seemingly irreconcilable notions of freedom. Virtually all Americans, of whatever political stripe, could come to this day with differences, sometimes deep ones, and yet celebrate the principled tolerance, the live-and-let-live mutual respect, that had made this country both prosperous and relatively peaceful – two things that anyone who looks around today with a clear eye will quickly see are not to be taken for granted.

Our current divisions, however, are not without precedents. And those very precedents should make us all the more vigorous in seeking better days, what we might even call a “new birth of freedom.” Christians in particular shouldn’t deceive themselves. We live in a fallen world. And it sometimes requires the greatest of sacrifices to retain even ordinary human goods.

Speaking at Gettysburg, where in the three days before July 4, 1863, 50,000 soldiers on the two sides were wounded, went missing, or died in the struggle to preserve the union and bring an end to slavery, Abraham Lincoln concluded, “we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

I often think of those words when I hear people, even Catholics, talk lightly of secession or civil war. Or when I hear the “woke” reduce the political and moral and military struggles we have engaged in as a nation to lazy phrases about “white privilege” or social exclusion.

Neither extreme knows the half, not even the hundredth of it.

As our colleague Hadley Arkes often points out (and did beautifully around this holiday in 2010) even some distinguished interpreters of our Constitutional system have disregarded:

the prime lesson in Lincoln’s teaching. Lincoln famously said at Gettysburg that our “nation” had been brought forth “four score and seven years ago.” Counting back eighty-seven years from Gettysburg does not get us to the Constitution (1787-88). Lincoln found the beginning of the nation in 1776, with the Declaration of Independence.The country was based on that “proposition,” as he called it, “all men are created equal.”  From that proposition everything else radiated.

Historical comparisons are never exact – and it would perhaps be an offense to those who have given their very lives for us – to equate the past 50 years of the pro-life struggle with their sacrifice. But it would also be an offense to regard that half-century of moral and legal struggle as mere politics. And someday – may that day come soon – we may look back on the pro-life struggle with the same pride that we now feel about the end of slavery, the civil rights revolution, and the preservation of our union.

*

Whatever else may be said this July 4, we have, quite literally, “a new birth of freedom.” We have – not as some say hoping to scare supporters into action – a ban on abortion, but a chance now to engage in the ample civic debate that should have happened before the Supreme Court shut it down with Roe.

And not just a debate over the strict constructionism (as Professor Arkes warned) of the Constitution in the Dobbs decision, but a chance for a free people to deliberate in communities, in states about the very respect we owe to the first beginnings and every phase of human life.

The outcome of a free discussion cannot be determined in advance. We have to work at it to succeed.

The DNC, the AMA, the EU, the UN, the WHO, even POTUS, and the whole alphabet soup of progressives can talk themselves silly in the attempt to convince us that killing babies in their mother’s wombs is a fundamental human right. But hundreds of millions of people worldwide have heard it all a million times – and say no.

The progressives and the usual media suspects may claim that decisions like Dobbs “go against the will of the people” and are a “threat to democracy.” False. On both counts.

A considerable percentage of ill-informed Americans have a vague belief that abortion should remain somehow, at some points, legal (it will in many places). But they quickly become opposed in the unborn child’s second and third trimesters – which was permitted under Roe, as it was almost any time for any reason.

And even as to “democracy,” we live in a democratic republic deliberately structured by the Constitution to make it hard for either majorities or minorities to tyrannize over the whole. That was not a flaw in what the Founding Fathers did. They feared pure democracy, not out of private interest. But because it requires wisdom in the crafting of institutions to protect us from all kinds of dangers, abundantly on display in human history.

And as to the case of abortion as the “right” to kill a child in the womb – a crude disruption of the natural human growth process to any eye clear of ideology – that contention would have seemed something all but impossible to believe for most of human history.

It was precisely the Court’s invention of the “constitutional right” to abortion that has led this country, perhaps more than any other, into such a divided state.

Most historians see the Battle of Gettysburg as the beginning of the end of the Civil War. For us, Dobbs is just the end of the beginning.

So let us celebrate this historic new day and know, even as we struggle, that we are playing our part in a long and honorable and human tradition.

There will soon be many varied and troubling skirmishes; doubtless also major court decisions and legislation. It’s in those efforts that we will determine whether we have the will finally to quit the culture of death.

And embrace a new birth of freedom.

 

*Image: Central Park, New York City, July 4th by Maurice Prendergast, c. 1900 [private collection]

You may also enjoy:

George J. Marlin’s A Catholic Civil War History Lesson

Tom Jodziewicz’s The Founders’ Vision of Religious Liberty

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.

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