Celebrating the Fourth of July: Revolution in Egypt

It’s the Fourth of July, and millions of Americans will spend the day at picnics, parties, and parades, all to be capped off with impressive displays of fireworks around the country. Most of them probably don’t know all that much about what happened on this date 237 years ago, but they do know that our colonial forefathers not only declared their independence, but successfully overthrew their British rulers in the most successful revolution in world history.

Despite the many problems America has experienced over the years, and the daunting legal, economic, social, and political crises we face today, the experiment has succeeded beyond any of the founding fathers’ wildest dreams.

Americans often use their liberty for destructive and immoral ends; but few of us would trade that liberty because it also allows us to worship as our conscience dictates, to build and provide for our families, and to pursue meaningful vocations and careers.

Americans often turn equality into a perniciously destructive force, overthrowing the very distinctions that make human life together possible; but few of us would trade that equality because it is the foundation for our basic dignity and security, the ideal that assures us that no one is going to enslave us, confiscate our property, or prevent us from saying whatever it is that we feel the need to say.

Americans have managed democracy and self-government in shockingly short-sighted, foolish, and misguided ways; but few of us would trade liberal democracy for a king or for the rule of experts. We are, when it is all said and done, doing surprisingly well. Most of us would rather live in this time and place than in any other, and a good portion of those who argue otherwise don’t really mean it.

This country is freer, safer, stronger, and more prosperous than any country in the history of the world, and by no means should we take that for granted.

If you’re in doubt about that, read this morning’s news. While we look back to our successful revolution more than two centuries ago, Egyptians – whose nation is the bellwether for the entire Arab world – wake up to find their revolution of last year – which resulted in the first democratically elected government in Egypt’s history – toppled in counter-revolution. The Arab Spring, which filled western democrats and Muslim Islamists alike with such hope, continues to slide into chaos. We are assured by the Egyptian military that there will be fair elections and democracy will be maintained. But who will be able to govern? And who will be able to solve the economic and social problems that President Morsi’s government was not able to solve? What leader can possibly maintain democratic legitimacy if his power is grounded in the military overthrow of the previous democratically elected leader?

Americans love to get excited about revolution and democracy. It’s in our blood. The explicitly stated foreign policy of the last two administrations has been to export democracy and freedom around the world. Whenever we see a foreign people overthrow tyranny, our heart goes out to them. But it is easy for us to forget that far more often than not, revolution and rebellion ends in failure, chaos, or worse. For every American Revolution there is the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, both of which culminated in mass murder, totalitarianism, and international conflict. Even as I write, revolution and internal conflict rips apart countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, in all of which America has a hand. What’s more, much as we Americans would not trade our liberty and equality, the citizens of those countries would give much for a modicum of order and security. Look further around the globe and you will find the vast majority of men, women, and children living without political voice, religious liberty, or freedom of movement and association at best, while experiencing massive inequality, economic hopelessness, poverty, and war at worst.

It turns out then, that for all of our problems, and for all of the ‘culture wars’ that divide us as Americans, to live in a country that was birthed in revolution, that is free, equal, safe, powerful, and prosperous – and all at the same time – is a rare privilege indeed.

Happy Independence Day.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 4, 2013, in American Founding, democracy, Equality, Liberty and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Celebrating the Fourth of July: Revolution in Egypt.

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