There is nothing more American, more summer celebrating, more freedom inspiring for me, than loading up the car with a battered suitcase, filling the tank to “F”, donning some cool sunglasses, playing funky music or a book or a baseball game on the radio, and then hitting the road for a long road trip. Something about this so embodies human and American freedom, a July or August car adventure to practically anywhere. To gritty urban Akron or earthy crunchy Ithaca. To Birkenstock Burlington or sweaty D.C. To artsy Minneapolis or “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire.
The destination matters less than the act of being blessed by God and empowered as a free human being, to just be free. I am free! To go where I want. To travel in freedom.
But “we” are free too. You. Every other American who also hits the road for a vehicular vacation. According to the American Automobile Association, this summer is shaping up as unprecedented for road trips. AAA estimates that 44 million Americans will hit the road for the July 4th holiday, a record number. So I will have to share my road freedom, for on the road called America, I’m in a community. I am free but also part of a larger nation of folks, with whom I live and work and play and worship and yes, drive too.
So I can’t drive as fast as I want, barrel along recklessly, or tailgate to my heart’s delight. I can’t refuse to pay the tolls that fund the highways we all enjoy. Can’t rudely cut the line at the roadside gas station so I can snag the last hot dog from the grill. Can’t curse that family from Ohio who is crawling along at 45 miles per hour in the travel lane. Can’t toss my trash out the window or drive without my headlights on, or drink alcohol while I drive or text away on my phone and not pay attention. Okay I can, I could. But I should not.
For I’m free but my freedom is always intertwined in the freedom of others.
This is the quality of moral freedom envisioned, declared and fought for, by our foremothers and forefathers, beginning July 4th 1776, 241 years ago. A simple reading of our Declaration of Independence might tempt us to conclude that human freedom is all about the individual, even a crazy free for all: every man or woman or child for themselves. No right or wrong attached to our self determination. No agreed upon commitment to the common good. No moral underpinnings to our freedom. Freedom as self centered actions taken to the extreme.
If this is the case I can do or say or tweet anything I want about any one I want, because I am free. I can obey just the laws I agree to, because I am free. I can do all I can to pay as little in common taxes as I can, because I am free. I can make as much money as I want and accumulate as much stuff as I want and I can keep it all to myself, because I am free. I can tell others just how to worship their God (or not), because I am free. I can even try to deny the freedom of others in their pursuit of happiness and human rights, to selfishly protect my precious freedom to be happy and free.
In the ongoing social experiment called American democracy, a tension always simmers just below the surface. Me against us. I versus thee. Independence in apparent opposition to interdependence. But such unfettered human freedom taken to its radical conclusion inevitably ends in social chaos.
To me, the best human freedom is always bound by shared morality, communal ethics, and the rule of law. We can always find these noble truths: in ancient faiths, in cherished traditions, in time honored customs, and for sure in Philadelphia, on a hot summer day, so long ago. As Benjamin Franklin said just before putting his signature on the Declaration of Independence, risking his one life for the cause of freedom: “Gentlemen: we must surely all hang together or surely, we will all hang together.”
So this is my July 4th freedom prayer.
May our freedom always be tempered by a shared moral commitment: to not just do the free thing but also the right thing. May we know that life is not lived in a social vacuum, that instead every time we exercise a right or freedom it affects another; therefore may we be wise, prudent and compassionate in how we live. May our leaders embody and model for us the highest of human virtues and may we also demand the same of ourselves, as citizens and neighbors. May we pursue our happiness with passion and joy and may we work to ensure that others, in freedom, can also do the same.
For me to be free and for you to be free as well: that’s the vision. Happy birthday America! Happy road trip! Happy freedom!