Independence Day: Celebrate Reagan’s ‘Shining City’

By Bob Just

“Proclaim Liberty

throughout all the land

unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

–Leviticus 25:10

Note: This verse is inscribed on the Liberty Bell, which was rung in Philadelphia to call citizens to Independence Hall to hear a public reading of the new Declaration of Independence.

July 4th is the day to shine our car headlights for Ronald Reagan’s beloved “Shining City,” this country we call America. I was gratified to see the public response to this idea reported in WorldNetDaily in the days after Ronald Reagan’s passing. Thanks also to “Fox & Friends,” Sean Hannity, Barry Farber, Joseph Farah and many others who got the word out on the air, headlights were shining across America as we headed for Independence Day.

This is the day it has all been for. By shining our headlights on July 4th we honor what President Reagan honored, the true meaning of American liberty – and that it’s precious and fragile. In his Farewell Address to the American people, Ronald Reagan warned of the “eradication of the American memory,” which he said could bring about “the erosion of the American spirit.” Remembering the real significance of this special day is a good start on establishing what Reagan called a “new patriotism.”

Today we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a distinctly “religious” document using famous phrases like “the laws of nature and nature’s God” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But the Declaration is also a political and legal document, because we had no right even to create a constitution unless we could claim a higher authority than King George III who represented the supreme law of the land. We were, after all, a British colony. Our answer was clear: God was our authority and His liberty was our cause.

Historical recognition is an important part of the July 4th celebration, but Independence Day is – most importantly – a day to recognize that faith in God is central to America’s political character.

Reagan understood this. He knew that faith is what made this country (and what made her great). He was also deeply concerned that Americans would forget their “under God” heritage due to a powerful and influential secular culture – for whom patriotism meant something entirely different than what it meant to our forefathers.

The Ronald Reagan who declared 1983 “The Year of the Bible” was a man we won’t hear much about in this secular culture. That same year Reagan gave his famous “Evil Empire” speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, and it was about a great deal more than the evil Soviet Union. Reagan knew that the Christian audience he addressed that evening fully understood the significance of Independence Day – and the unique place the American people had in the world. But he wanted them to understand his own heart on these matters – and to take comfort in knowing their president also understood the dangers of secularism, which even back then was undermining our religious heritage at every opportunity.

“I want you to know,” Reagan told the gathering, “that this administration is motivated by a political philosophy that sees the greatness of America in you, her people, and in your families, churches, neighborhoods, communities – the institutions that foster and nourish values like concern for others and respect for the rule of law under God.

“Now, I don’t have to tell you,” he went on, “that this puts us in opposition to, or at least out of step with, a prevailing attitude of many who have turned to a modern-day secularism, discarding the tried and time-tested values upon which our very civilization is based. No matter how well intentioned, their value system is radically different from that of most Americans. And while they proclaim that they’re freeing us from superstitions of the past, they’ve taken upon themselves the job of superintending us by government rule and regulation. Sometimes their voices are louder than ours, but they are not yet a majority.”

Even more than 20 years later, I believe President Reagan is still right that determined secularists are a minority in America. Yes, there are many people who do not grasp the true significance of the Declaration, but I believe the majority of Americans understand full well what Reagan stood for, and what I am saying here. When Reagan called for a “new patriotism,” it was a shining city patriotism he was talking about – not a secular patriotism, which will inevitably accept the state as God, the final moral arbiter of right and wrong.

Reagan’s America was an “under God” America. Our history and traditions make no sense unless they are understood in this way. The Declaration of Independence clearly states that our rights come from God. As I’ve said, without the Declaration, there is no Constitution, but without God, there is no Declaration.

America started a political revolution in this world when people stood up and proclaimed liberty as a thing given by God for the sake of all of mankind. Thus it is our responsibility to shine the light of freedom, and to understand the significance of this calling.

Today is the first Independence Day we celebrate together since Ronald Reagan’s passing. Although toward the end, President Reagan’s mind had faded, his heart still beat – and we all took comfort in that. Now the man is truly gone, but we have our memories, and the one that’s strongest for me is not his victory in the Cold War, but his vision that America is still the “Shining City” envisioned by John Winthrop. This country is a beacon of light, with a distinct biblical mission to “proclaim liberty throughout the land” – and throughout the world. In this sense, it is undeniable that America is exceptional as a nation. Reagan understood that and urged Americans to always remember our special mission as that “shining city upon a hill.”

Consciously or unconsciously, secular America wants to forget this reality. I’m sure secularists wish July 4th celebrated some other document – like the Constitution, truly America’s political heart. But the Declaration of Independence is America’s political soul – without which we also die. Any country can write a constitution (even the Soviet Union had a high-minded-sounding constitution). But proclaiming liberty under God is another matter entirely. And there is too little understanding of that in our society. President Reagan knew this.

Reagan’s farewell warning to America

When Ronald Wilson Reagan was leaving office he gave the American people a final warning, as other presidents had done going all the way back to George Washington. You can guess at what he considered essential. It was not a warning about excessive taxation, or staying militarily strong, or about civil rights, as important as all those are, but a warning about maintaining our essential American identity, something always under attack by those who want to change our identity in the name of progress.

I had the occasion to meet Ronald Reagan when a group I belonged to gave him the Teach Freedom Award for his farewell warning to the American people. As head of the group, I promised him that we would do what we could ourselves to promote this important warning.

Hear are the words of Ronald Reagan. Let us pray we all heed them.

    Finally, there is a great tradition of warnings in presidential farewells, and I’ve got one that’s been on my mind for some time. But oddly enough it starts with one of the things I’m proudest of in the past eight years: the resurgence of national pride that I called the new patriotism. This national feeling is good, but it won’t count for much, and it won’t last unless it’s grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.

    An informed patriotism is what we want. And are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world? Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions. If you didn’t get these things from your family, you got them from the neighborhood, from the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio. Or you could get a sense of patriotism from school. And if all else failed, you could get a sense of patriotism from popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-’60s.

    But now, we’re about to enter the ’90s, and some things have changed. Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it. We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs protection.

    So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion, but what’s important: Why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant. You know, four years ago on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, I read a letter from a young woman writing of her late father, who’d fought on Omaha Beach. Her name was Lisa Zanatta Henn, and she said, “We will always remember, we will never forget what the boys of Normandy did.” Well, let’s help her keep her word. If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.

    Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual. And let me offer lesson No. 1 about America: All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins. And children, if your parents haven’t been teaching you what it means to be an American, let ’em know and nail ’em on it. That would be a very American thing to do.

    And that’s about all I have to say tonight. Except for one thing. The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the “shining city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined. What he imagined was important because he was an early Pilgrim, an early freedom man. He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free.

    I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still.

And that’s how I see it, and how millions upon millions of Americans still see it. So proclaim liberty throughout the land! Shine your headlights to remind your family, your friends, and your community that America is exceptional – not because Americans are a special people, but because we’ve been given a special gift – liberty.

I’ll leave you with my favorite Ronald Reagan quote: “God bless America.”