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As mankind become more liberal…

As we again celebrate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, declaring independence from Great Britain, a comment of interest may enhance our understanding of that great event. It was our first president, George Washington, who said that “as mankind become more liberal, they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community, are equally entitled to the protection of civil government. I hope ever to see America amongst the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality.”

Justice (just behavior or treatment) and liberality (the quality of being open to new ideas and free from prejudice) are the two things that our first president hoped for as our country matured.

In some ways, the events of these past and recent weeks have buoyed our spirits as Supreme Court decisions have demonstrated a majority of justices’ openness to new ideas (gay marriage) and a concern for just treatment (supporting fair housing, the rights of all for health care, and legal marriage for the LGBT community). A part of their deliberations included an appreciation of the reality that the majority of our citizens are in support of these specific values.

But the same weeks have also demonstrated that with both justice and liberality, we have some hard realities and hard questions that have yet to be addressed. Race and guns – the persistence of an armed nation and racism suggest that “we, the people” remain, in important ways, powerless to address these maladies. Some have called this “the birth defects of the American republic.” It is good to remember that the very first article of our founding document said that those “bound to service for a term of years”(slaves) would count as “three fifths of all other Persons”. Meanwhile, the second amendment speaks of “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms”.

Fortunately, the three-fifths rule was eventually discarded, but the legacy of slavery hangs heavy as the recent events in South Carolina demonstrated. As for guns, a rule written in the age of the musket and designed to protect an infant republic from the return of King George’s redcoats, still holds an interpretation that inspired a 21 year old, who was intent on provoking a race war, to have legal access to a weapon that lets him commit an act of terror.

We like to see ourselves as a country where anything is possible, that our destiny is in our own hands. Politicians like to describe our country as “this great experiment in self-government”, insisting we can make America anew if we want to.

So as we genuinely celebrate our beginnings as a country, as a land of restless innovation, we nonetheless remain shackled to our past on guns and race. These past weeks have forced us to see our own wounds, and lead us to wonder why it is that we cannot heal them, why our hands seem tied, when in almost every other respect our founding documents provide manifestos for liberation. We have the power to remove these shackles that inhibit justice and liberality. Let’s use it.