Yesterday, we celebrate our country’s 244th birthday. Despite our struggles and our political differences that we seem to have in our country, I am thankful to live in a country founded on the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Even with all of the craziness going on, it can be so easy to take our country for granted. If you have never had a chance to travel around the world, you begin to just think everyone lives like we do in America and you fail to realize that so many things we take for granted are things so many people in this world can only dream of. As I celebrate our freedom, I cannot help but recall what freedom really is. You see, I think at the heart of allot of our differences in our country is a failure to understand what it actually means to be free. Everyone justifies their position by saying “I’m an American, I’m free, I can do whatever I want.” But very few people have ever stopped to ask the question, what does it mean to be free.
Like many of you, I am privileged to count among my family and friends many men and women who sacrifice so much, including some friends who have paid the ultimate price, to defend the freedom of our great country so that you and I might be free to come here and worship today. So, what is this gift of freedom.
If you ask Americans today, what it means to be free many of them would respond by saying it’s “the ability to do whatever I want.” Well, we as Americans don’t actually believe that. Our freedom is so ingrained in us and so while maybe we can’t articulate it, we know it when we see it, and no American would actually claim that freedom is the ability to do whatever you want. For if that is what freedom is, our Founding Fathers created utter chaos and countless Americans have died to protect pure madness. If freedom is the unbridled ability to do whatever we want then we would have tyranny in this county. If freedom is the ability to do whatever you want we would live in a country where kill other people, people steal others property, and people oppress others in every imaginable way. That’s not who we are as Americans. As Americans, we know that true freedom cannot simply be the license to do whatever we want, after all we don’t riot or protest when someone is rightly arrested for murder, theft, etc.
When you tell people this, they will often times try to put a caveat on the end of that statement. So they will say freedom is the ability to do whatever I want so long as it doesn’t harm others. Leave aside the argument that all of our arguments effect others, and as Americans we don’t even believe that is the true meaning of freedom. Why do we step in and have an intervention when one of our friends becomes an alcoholic, or an addict? Why do we spend so many resources to prevent a high school teenager from continuing with her eating disorder, or to keep a depressed man from committing suicide? After all they are free. Sure they might be hurting themselves, but they should have the right to do it. No, we rightly step in because we realize the license to do whatever we want does not lead to freedom, it leads to the exact opposite, it leads to slavery. Ask any addict what it was like when they were struggling with their addiction and they will you tell you they didn’t find freedom until they began down the path of recovery. As a matter of fact, when they were stuck in their addiction they were more slaves than free.
Our country was founded on greater ideals than simply being able to do whatever we want. Countless Americans have died to protect the genius of the Founding Fathers which recognized we are meant to be free, free to live in truth and goodness. It’s remarkable when you think about it. These Founding Fathers took a philosophical idea and put it into practice. People had talked about this idea in the universities for years and finally some men rose up and decided to give it a shot. They put into practice a philosophical experiment which believed genuine freedom is not the right to do whatever we want, but the liberty to do what we ought. It’s not the ability for us to get away with anything we want, it’s rather the right that says the government shouldn’t do anything to get in the way of allowing us to achieve our greatest potential as children of God. It’s the paradox that in being more dependent on God we find ourselves more free, because we have the freedom to do not what we want, but what we ought to do. What has made America exceptional is not that we are better than other people, but that for the first time, in a world that for the vast majority of its history had only known tyranny, servitude and serfdom, a system was established which allowed man the greatest opportunity to fulfill his potential as made in the image and likeness of God. Look at the results! Even with our own imperfections as a nation, we still have it far better than anyone else.
Still, despite this offering of freedom, many people continue to take offense at it. There are allot of people who won’t accept that this is what the Founding Fathers intended when they founded America. They continue to reject the call to holiness, which necessarily places limits on our human actions, because they are afraid that unless they can do whatever they want, they will not be truly free. But, I dare say, that is a failure to understand what freedom truly is. It seems to me the freest people I have witnessed are those who are the holiest, the closest to God. Look at Mother Theresa, for example. There is no doubt she was free, yet she had a very harsh rule of life for herself, intended to help her form herself into who she was intended to be. True freedom, the freedom that God offers us, the freedom for which Jesus died to give us, is the freedom to do good, to be unimpeded and unhindered in being who God created us to be, children of God in His own image and likeness, to be the most perfect self we can become.
Freedom does not mean that God has no place in this country. No, our Founding Fathers knew that to removing God from the notion of freedom was to cease to have freedom at all. After all, “the highest freedom is the yes in conformity with God’s will.” Our Founding Fathers built a nation on the basic and simple idea that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Freedom then, is nothing less than the call to greatness, the call to holiness.
As we celebrate our country’s birthday, I hope we stop and give thanks to God for the many blessings we have. I hope we can step back and realize that for all of our faults, we are way better off than the rest of the world. Yet, when we acknowledge that I think we realize that we owe it to God and to the rest of the world, to strive for that goodness and excellence. To take the opportunity that is available to us. If we want our country to live up to its full potential, it starts with us, with individuals, with you and I. Do we choose to become a better, my more perfect self, more holy person? Do we choose to live out our call to holiness? Do we choose to believe, to have faith that Jesus alone is the way, the truth and the life? For it is only through good and free individuals, that a society is good and free. As we stop and celebrate our countries birthday, as we give thanks to God, I hope we can acknowledge what it truly means to be free, and then to use that gift of freedom so that others too might have the freedoms we have. So that others might be truly free to become who God created them to be; ultimately to become a saint.
 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Church Fathers and Teachers. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010. Pg 62.
 Preamble to the Declaration of Independence.