A More Realistic July Fourth

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We were home for the July 4 holiday this year, and the parade and fireworks show in my town offered less immediate and obvious material for a renewal of hope than did the hotel fireworks where we stayed the last two years. True, the American Legion band played Stars & Stripes Forever. But there was no Ray Charles singing America the Beautiful and nothing analogous to it – there was nothing that gave meaning to the holiday. The most memorable “music” of the parade, if you could call it that, was a local rock band, dressed in what could be interpreted with equal plausibility as flimsy surfer-style shorts or underwear, blasting out a song whose most memorable line was – I kid you not – “let’s do whatever we want!”

The traditional theme of my July 4 columns here on HT has been the renewal of hope. But hope must be tempered with realism – “hopeful realism” being a very useful phrase coined by Tom Nelson. I’m still holding up the lamp of hope this Independence Day. But after two successive years of pushing for more hope, this year it looks like I’m going to make concessions to the realists.

And yet, the opportunity for hope is there for those who have the spiritual eyes to see it. The second most memorable music from the parade was a ragtag group of about eight guys from a local Baptist church playing what I can only describe as awesome funky jazz music. Neighbors of mine who articulate no Christian faith commitments stood up and danced enthusiastically to it. The same people turned up their noses at the rock band.

I’ve never seen the Baptists in a parade in my town before. Apparently the parade is more or less open to anyone who can entertain the crowd. So suppose the Christians – that church or some other one – decided that the Independence Day parade was an opportunity to do more than pass out leaflets advertising VBS (which is what the Baptists were doing as their band played). Suppose they decided they would be the ones whose parade entry would exegete the meaning of the holiday. They would pretty much win the “battle” for cultural influence in that sphere by default. What if they had a culture war and nobody showed up?

It would be easy to do this full time. In the July 4 parade you do a float about religious liberty. In the Memorial Day parade, by contrast, a lack of meaning is not the problem; but there is still an absence of the transcendent. So the Christians show up and hand out leaflets that say “greater love has no man than this.” In the Thanksgiving parade you prompt people to be grateful – and maybe think about whom it is they’re grateful to. In the Christmas parade, Jesus is already present, but it’s all rote and ritualized. So you add the joy element by leading the crowd in singing boisterous carols.

And it would be worth it to do this. In a small city like ours, everyone shows up to the parade. And it’s really the only authoritative platform of cultural formation. It’s the only thing our whole city does together to define shared meaning in our lives.

True, things are not going well in America right now. Apparently there are only four votes on the Supreme Court for even the most rudimentary protection of religious liberty. But earlier today I had a conversation about this that brought me back to this point from last year – even when law and government go wrong, they can take a long, long time to break down the deeper structures of culture. When I wrote that post last year, I was somewhat skeptical about it – as I said at the time, the reach of the law is much longer today than it was in earlier ages. But at the same time, the love of country and neighbor is deep in this country, and it doesn’t take that much to bring it out of people.

You just have to know which chords to play.