The Queen celebrated her 60th anniversary on the throne a few weeks back with all the pomp that such an occasion might suggest. Sixty years working at any job is impressive on its own. That long at the top of one of the world’s most powerful countries is, well, a feat that deserves a celebration.
The monarchy is, of course, considerably less important for England than it has been in the past. These days, the only function the royal family seems to play is keeping op-ed writers busy questioning whether the monarchy’s time has passed and keeping the tabloids guessing about whether Princess Kate is having a baby.
And yet, somewhat paradoxically, it’s their irrelevance to the functioning of the country that makes the monarchy important I speak as something as an outsider, of course, but it struck me watching the Queen’s celebration that Britain can express its national unity these days around a figure, a family, that barely has any influence on policy or the government at all. Unlike our inaugurations, the Diamond Jubilee and last year’s royal wedding afforded England a chance to celebrate a union that goes deeper than one party’s victory.
It’s odd, I grant, to extol the virtues of the contemporary monarchy on the day that we celebrate America’s independence from it. The kings and queens of England have not always been so detached from the government, nor so admired and loved. There was good reason for America to move on and I am glad that we did.
But like the royal wedding or the Queen’s celebration, the celebration of our independence allows us to transcend the politics and policy for a moment and reflect that our life together does not take shape around a monarch, whose benevolence may change in any situation. No, our collective identity is fonded on two statements of principles that are designed to provide the enduring stability that is the condition for freedom.
These sorts of moments don’t come often for us, and when they do—as at 9/11 or the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger—we’d prefer they not at all. But these moments do provide us with an escape of the daily grind of partisan wrangling. They breathe a different political air into our lungs. The pomp and circumstance, the flags and fireworks, these are the signs of a people whose loyalty to the principle that “all men are created equal” precedes that of their party.
It is true that those are principles that we have not lived up to. Our failure was there at the beginning and has been a constant blight on our national conscience. But the affirmation of patriotism, the expression of our gratitude for the country we call home, does not happen require us to be blinkered or blind. If I may modify G.K. Chesterton, the patriot does not love America because she is great—even if at times she may have been. She will only be great if we are willing to love her in spite of her faults and shortcomings. She will be great if we will not relent in calling her to fidelity to her original principles while working to make her better.
This exhortation to better than we are is what many have meant by “American exceptionalism.” As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat points out in his excellent book Bad Religion, John Winthrop’s famous “city on a hill” line was meant as a warning that if America failed to do well than she would be accordingly judged. Douthat expands the thought, pointing out that in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address he “invokes providentialism to explain a chastisement, rather than to boast of America’s particular virtue or celebrate its particular mission in the world.” American exceptionalism is invoked to caution America from going wrong and to chasten her when she does.
Our gratitude for the freedoms that have been won is constituted in part by delighting in our barbeques and fireworks. Such celebrations, the parades and the parties, bring together the little platoons and communities that are the backbone of this nation.
But the celebration of those freedoms is a reminder that they are not guaranteed. That they may someday erode away. And that our shared commitment to them must run deeper than any election cycle can express. The union will ever be a fragile one, for we live in a fallen world. America is not our final home, and the conflicting visions of liberty will not go away.
We have yet to perfect the Union in which we live. And we never will, save when that most perfect of all unions comes to us on the last day. But ours is still a union worthy of our gratitude, for it is has given to us the ongoing opportunity to continue to improve it. We must continue seeking the justice that comes when we recognize our neighbor’s humanity and their claims on the justice that our founding document expressed.
Matthew Lee Anderson is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith and The End of our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. He is the lead writer at Mere Orthodoxy. You can follow him on Twitter.