Friday, July 3, 2009

Celebrating our independence and religious freedom

You may not know this: Independence Day - the Fourth of July - is an official feast day on the Episcopal calendar, right up there with the feast day for Peter and Paul and all the saints.

The reason Independence Day is a church day isn't that the founders of our nation were necessarily saintly, but because the Episcopal Church was born in the American Revolution and the fight for independence from Great Britain.

Many of our nation's founders, particularly the Virginians, were members of the established colonial church which so happened to be the Church of England. Once free from Britain, they still wanted to retain what later became known as an "Anglican" form of worship. Thus was born the Episcopal Church. There is much more to the story than this, but that is enough for now.

There is another element to this worth noting in our contemporary world so torn by religious conflict. The founders of the United States believed that all things ultimately come from God, and their religious values were at the heart of their individual moral perspective. They certainly believed that those values informed how they would govern a young nation, and those values permeated the document we celebrate this weekend, the Declaration of Independence:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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."
Yet the founders were repelled by the idea of a theocracy, a religiously based government. They had experienced such a government. The British monarch was also the head of the Church of England, and it had been only a century since Britain had endured a calamitous civil war between factions of Protestantism. The founders of the United States wanted no government with any official religion.

These values of religious freedom went even deeper than that. God was at the center of founders' moral life, but they understood that people see and hear God differently - or not at all. Even amongst the Virginia Episcopalians -- Thomas Jefferson and George Washington chief among them -- their understanding of God differed dramatically (and those divisions remain today).

The founders envisioned democracy as the way people could live (sometimes in great tension) in a society made up of peoples from many lands, many traditions and many religions, or no religion. The United States would not be a "Christian nation" but a nation that could allow people to find God each in their own way without being coerced by the powers of government. Jefferson's 1786 Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom stated the reasons clearly:
"Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness..."
Over two centuries, this free market of religion has allowed Christianity and every major religion to flourish like in no other nation on earth precisely because none was the official religion. One only look at England to see the outcome of a church being supported by the state: The Church of England, some say, will all but disappear by 2050.

More ominously, we also only need look at contemporary theocracies, Iran chief among them, to see the dangers of a nation governed by religious institutions. Our independence as a free people was hard won, and that independence was from not just a colonial power, but from theocratic government. We do well to celebrate our religious freedom this Independence Day:

1 comment:

Janice Dean said...

If you have not yet visited, you and Lori should go to Richmond to visit St. John's Episcopal Church. St. Paul's interim rector, Alan Mead, went to St. John's to be their interim rector after serving us at St. Paul's. I believe that St. John's has now called a new rector, though.

They have some wonderful programs, including regular reenactments of Patrick Henry's "give me liberty or give me death" speech in the context of debate at the Second Virginia Convention in 1775, which met in Richmond because the Royal Governor had dissolved the House of Burgesses the previous year. Influential Virginians like TJ, GW, and RHL (Richard Henry Lee) were among the delegates.

Danny and I enjoyed a performance of the Richmond Boys Choir there just before Christmas last year. It's a neat place, full of the interconnected histories of the Episcopal Church and the American Revolution.