Please enjoy a guest post written by Dr. Andrew D. Carico.
Andrew is Headmaster at John Adams Academy in El Dorado Hills, California. He earned his Ph.D. in Political Science from Claremont Graduate University, and he has also written for Public Discourse, Law & Liberty, Starting Points Journal, and Claremont Review of Books. Dr. Carico has a deep love for classical education and its role in transforming individual lives and perpetuating American liberty. In his professional life at John Adams Academy, he is dedicated to serving the school’s mission because he believes, as James Madison wrote, that “a well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people.” He resides in the Sacramento area with his wife and two young children.
Is It Time for an American Rebirth?
Can a nation be born again?
The term “born again” gives rise to much thought, along with perhaps speculation and confusion. The concept has roots within the Christian religion. In the Gospel of John, Chapter 3:3-6, Jesus engages in a transformative conversation with the Jewish priest Nicodemus:
Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
The spiritual rebirth that comes from God provides new spiritual life, the regeneration of a heart marred by original sin but made new by the work of Christ.
To be “born again” also implies an original birth. Like an individual, the United States has a known and defined “founding,” which makes it distinct from other nations in the world. It even has a birthday—July 4, 1776. It’s not common for countries to have a birthday. Can China, Britain, or India identify a specific founding “day”? They have important dates in their countries’ history, but their cultures and territories stretch back centuries or more.
The principles of the Declaration of Independence, preserved and protected by the Constitution, provide the touchstone for Americans to return to, reengage with, and reassert as their own. The principles in these documents provide the source for American renewal, if only Americans will take the time to reacquaint themselves with them.
Examples of American Regeneration
Three distinct moments in American history reflect a need for rebirth and a rebaptizing in our original principles, suggesting it can happen again in our own time.
First, consider the ratification debates in 1787. Writing in The Federalist No. 1, Alexander Hamilton notes the following:
It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.
Hamilton provides a teaching here for each new generation of Americans to engage in “reflection and choice” on the goodness of their principles and the soundness of their constitutional system, lest they be doomed to a tumultuous situation of constant “accident and force.” While not a call for rebirth per se, it is explicitly a call for reflection, which may necessitate rebirth in those original ideals. It’s a task for each generation, to use Walt Whitman’s words, to take up “the burden and the lesson.”
Second, Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address provides perhaps the clearest call for national rebirth in American history. The institution of chattel slavery has been referred by many as America’s “original sin,” a sin squarely addressed by the nation in 1863. Lincoln began his Address famously with “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” His use of “conceived” suggests a specific moment—1776 with the Declaration—when the American nation began, travailing through childbirth and emerging as an independent nation.
Lincoln ends with a call for “a new birth of freedom,” suggesting that for the nation to live, it must win the bloody war and rebaptize itself in the principles found at its conception and birth (specifically human equality, protection of natural rights, and consent of the governed), and to make them new again.
Finally, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. powerfully articulated—standing poignantly on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963—the struggle for full equality for African Americans, and how to overcome that struggle required the application of the principles of the American Founding to all citizens:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
King further challenged the nation to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed—we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”
An American Rebirth?
Throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries, a dedicated Progressive Movement has explicitly sought to critique and supersede the ideals of the Declaration and Constitution. The consequences of this movement have reverberated throughout various sectors of American life, from an expansive growth of government on the one hand to the precipitous decline of the traditional family on the other. Their work has been impactful, but it mustn’t be fatal.
Like a man who cannot re-enter his mother’s womb and be born again, neither can America go back and experience its founding in 1776. Yet, what it cannot do in the flesh, it can do in the spirit. America can rededicate itself to those truths we should still hold self-evident. It can experience a true revolution, which, in one of its most basic meanings, is a complete circular turn, a return to the beginning.
Consider the thoughts of John Adams in his retirement. He liked to distinguish between the War for Independence and the American Revolution. For Adams, the Revolution came first—it was in “the minds and hearts of the people” from 1760 to 1775 as the arguments for separation from Britain were growing and national unity was forming. The war, what is often called the Revolution, was a follow-through of the real revolution that previously took place.
Thus, if Americans from all walks of life can revolve back to their founding truths and embrace them in their minds and hearts, the rebirth of a nation could commence. In doing so, it may once again ensure, as the Great Emancipator put it, “a new birth of freedom.”