By Tom Ehrich

In our tucked-away corner of the Rondout Valley, west of the Hudson River, it’s all about family on this Fourth of July. That means it’s all about freedom.

Normally we are two. Today we are 11. Each of us is free to move about, to pair up in marriages and partnerships, to have children, and to spend a holiday without any heavy hand oppressing us or any warring armies threatening us.

This freedom isn’t an entitlement; it is a blessing, won hard, defended vigorously, and constantly under threat by extremist forces seeking power and by cagey wealthy seeking more wealth. Use it or lose it: use my freedom, go about freely, speak my mind, stand with those under assault – or else count on losing what I cherish. The forces of darkness never stop, never relent.

My ancestors came to the New World seeking religious freedom. They were happy to find it, not so happy to extend it to others. It took several generations before the rigid Puritans caught this spacious continent’s spirit of freedom, entered more liberal religious traditions, and became the practical builders of towns and enterprises and colleges who saw that freedom and knowledge were essential.

These were brave men and women. They journeyed into one little-known world after another. None was notable for his valor in combat; their valor was to settle land, start new enterprises, and do their part as citizens, including serve in the nation’s wars.

To me, the National Anthem’s words “the land of the free and the home of the brave” mean something very specific. They mean the freedom to be whatever one can manage to be, with no arbitrary constraints. They mean the bravery of the responsible citizen. They mean the bravery that it takes to form marriages and to start families in uncertain times. They mean a love of freedom that insists on others being free, as well, and a foundational bravery that dares to live as a free and self-sacrificial citizen.

It worries me that so many of my fellow Americans are frightened and willing to sacrifice some or all of their freedom just to feel safe. It worries me that so many are willing to deny freedom to certain others. It worries that so many are retreating into the cowardice of bigotry, jingoism and isolationism.

How could “the land of the free and home of the brave” become a land of the frightened mob and the coward? Surely we can do better than this. I pray for America, because we have been entrusted with something that people everywhere yearn to have: freedom, self-respect, duty. When we honor this trust, hope resounds in every land.