Happy Independence Day!
This is the month we Americans celebrate the declaration of our country’s independence from the Crown of England and the beginning of the Revolutionary War that actually secured that independence. The freedoms that we enjoy and usually associate with this holiday weren’t actually won in that war. Many of them were already enjoyed by British subjects (but often denied to colonials) and they weren’t formally guaranteed to American citizens until the adoption of the U.S. Constitution and its first ten amendments more than a decade after the founding of the Republic! (The Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788, and actually took effect on March 4, 1789. A “bill of rights” of twelve articles was proposed on September 25, 1789; ten of those articles were ratified on December 15, 1791, forming the “Bill of Rights” known to us.)
So, on July 4 many of us will enjoy parades and fireworks displays (or perhaps they will be, as our community’s will be, on the evening before the 4th); many will participate in family gatherings and picnics or barbecues. Probably very few will take part in church services even though Independence Day is a “prayer book holiday” with its own “propers” (lessons and prayers). That doesn’t stop people from confusing the symbols of nation and church, however.
In the nearly six years that have followed the terrible events of last September 11, 2001, there seems to have been a lot of such “symbol mixing”. For example, I recently found the graphic shown on this page – a stars-and-stripes garbed angel night light… Other “mixed symbols” I’ve seen have included stars-and-stripes decorated crosses, and American flags with the field-of-stars replaced by a cross. My favorite (or perhaps I should say “least favorite”) “mixed symbol” is on a t-shirt marketed in a Christian magazine. It is an American bald eagle flying in front of a cross trailing a banner from its beak; on the banner are the words, “God so loved the world….”
All of these “mixed symbols” are based on the notion that America was founded as some sort of “Christian nation.” I must confess that I’ve never quite understood what that means. As a student of religious history, I’m painfully aware that most of the influential “founding fathers” were not particularly “orthodox” in their religious beliefs (even the ones who were active members of the Anglican-Episcopal Church!) Benjamin Franklin, for example, was a deist who believed that God set everything up and got the universe started, but otherwise took no interest in it. (This is the “clockmaker” image of the Almighty.) Thomas Jefferson, though he was active in his local Anglican congregation and even served on the Vestry, did not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ! He even published an edited version of the New Testament from which any mention of Christ’s divinity was removed! So it seems rather unlikely to me that such folks intended to found a “Christian nation.”
Instead, they founded a “pluralistic nation” in which those of every religion (and those of none) enjoy freedom of conscience. The First Amendment declares: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” We are free to speak our minds, to worship (or not) as we choose, and to confront our government when we believe it has done wrong. It is for this, not for the founding of a “Christian nation”, that we should give thanks! These rights of conscience are rare among the societies of this world and we should all be grateful that we have them.
Our Book of Common Prayer collect for Independence Day stresses this focus of our thanks: “Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” (BCP 1979, p. 242)
May you enjoy all the freedoms of the day this 4th of July!