The Fourth of July felt a little more like the Fourth of July this year. Traditional Montana summer diversions such as rodeos and festivals made a comeback after being shelved in 2020 due to pandemic concerns. While Bozeman itself did not enjoy an organized fireworks show — and fire concerns snuffed out other planned displays in the area — the rockets’ multicolored glare lit the festive spirit around southwest Montana and across the country.
It was a return to the American celebration envisioned by Founding Father John Adams already in July 1776:
I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance 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.1
Parades, games, sports, and illuminations, needless to say, continue to be a big part of our annual celebration of American independence and freedom!
Freedom and Responsibility
It is noteworthy that, for Adams and other Founders, the annual celebration of the birth of America would not merely be a looking back, but a looking up. God Almighty was to be honored as the Author of the new nation’s deliverance, and it was vital that “acts of devotion” to Him be perpetual.
While not endorsing any specific Christian sect or particular religion, Adams and other Founders recognized that freedom could not endure if people lost regard for God and turned from living upright lives. Even when the framework for promoting and preserving American freedoms was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution in 1787, it was clear to the framers that a mere document was inadequate to preserve liberty.
As Adams famously declared during his term as the fledgling nation’s second president, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”2
And less than a month before the opening of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, delegate Benjamin Franklin wrote to several friends that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”3
The American ideal of liberty was never about unbridled personal autonomy. Indeed, it was apparent from the start that liberty would quickly dissolve without the underpinning of morality in the lives of the governed. Or, as radio commentator Paul Harvey repeatedly quipped, “Self-government won’t work without self-discipline.”
Freedom and Opportunity
Americans who are also followers of Christ should especially understand the true nature of freedom. In addressing the Galatians, who were wrestling with a return to legalism, the apostle Paul writes, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 3:13–14).
And the apostle Peter, while directing his readers to be subject to human governments “that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people,” urges them to, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16).
Freedom is not ultimately about us. As those who trust in Christ and know the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, we recognize we are freed from the power of sin and from having to work for our salvation, not so we can live merely to fulfill our own desires, but so that we can serve our neighbors and faithfully honor our God in new life.
As another Fourth of July celebration recedes into the past, let’s pause to remember the glory and responsibility of true freedom. We truly have something to celebrate — as Americans, and much more so as followers of Christ!
Even more, empowered by God’s presence, let’s show what it means to be truly free, concerned less about our own rights than about the good of our neighbors.
2 From “To the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts,” October 11, 1798.
3 Letter of Benjamin Franklin to Messrs. The Abbes Chalut and Arnaud, April 17, 1787.