By Wesley Smith
The initial battles in the Revolutionary War broke out in April 1775. By the middle of the following year there was much talk about declaring independence for the colonies from Great Britain. On June 7, 1776, when the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced a motion calling for independence. After heated debate, Congress appointed a five-man committee to study the proposal and draft a statement to justify Lee’s request. On July 2nd, the gathering voted in favor of Lee’s resolution and two days later the Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence, which had been largely written by Thomas Jefferson. The United States of America was born. Whereas prior to this the colonists had summer celebrations for the birthday of King George, that year there were mock funerals for the king. However, there were also bells ringing, cannon fire, parades, bonfires, and picnics. It was the first celebration of the Fourth of July in America.
In the Declaration of Independence, after affirming the principle of equality based on the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” the document continues, “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.” In that same declaration, the signers stated that they were “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world” for the moral right to be free. In the only book he ever published, Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson called on God to intervene in “the ordinary, orderly workings of the world.” God and religion are replete in the notes, letters, and other documents of a young America and its founders.
Thus, today it is virtually impossible to celebrate Independence Day without religious references; one cannot really talk about this national holiday without talking about God and religion—if you are looking at what was written and discussed in 1776 and the following years as the Revolutionary War went on—because it is chocked full of it. Even today, the people of the United States largely have some religious convictions and a sense of their own spirituality—even if they are nominally religious and don’t regularly attend religious services.
We hear a lot of talk about the separation of Church and State—yet that phrase does not exist anywhere in the Constitution. It is a part of the conversation about the Constitution—but it is NOT in the Constitution. Whether or not it should be in the Constitution has long been a matter of debate. But, in fact, it is not.
We do talk a lot about the Establishment Clause, and that is in the Constitution, in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” It is a good Amendment and I am personally glad we have it.
But there is no part of that which mentions the separation of Church and State either.
I also realize there is much discussion as to the particulars of exactly how the Fourteenth Amendment impacts the First Amendment, where the cultural conflicts of recent decades have largely pitted a growing secularization of America against its more traditional Judeo-Christian culture.
However, based on the context of the First Amendment, its actual purpose was to protect people of faith from the government—not to protect the government from faith or people of faith. Yet it seems that is exactly what some lawsuits brought by secular organizations have tried to do—to somehow protect the government from religion, not protect religion and religious people from government abuses.
In fact, with our founders, there seems to be a deep respect for faith and religion, one sometimes woefully lacking in a few corners of our political culture today. The early Americans were not about trying to eliminate faith from the political and cultural landscape. They did not have this knee-jerk negative reaction to religion that you so often see in today’s world.
Further, it is possible, as a collective group of people, to seek the will of God, to seek God’s direction and blessing as a people, and to do that without claiming that we have some special status before God that other people do not or that we are trying to deprive non-religious people of their rights. It is very appropriate to claim (and not to apologize for) a deep reliance on God to guide us and to help us be a better nation. Language like that is in our founding documents. There is a reason that our nation, from its inception, has so much God-talk in its history and in its official documents.
It is also right and proper to take pride in our nation—and to respect its important symbols like the American flag and our national anthem. No one should ever have to apologize for that. Saluting the flag, standing for the anthem with our hand over our heart, and so forth are important patriotic gestures and deeply meaningful acts. To do so is not to deny our history or to gloss over our imperfections. It is not to somehow deny the ugly history of slavery and its ramifications. Proponents of the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory contend that America is fundamentally racist with a handful of anti-racists in it. The opposite is true: America is an anti-racist nation with a handful of racists in it. We are indeed the most inclusive nation on earth.
We do strive for a more perfect union. No one of us is perfect, nor is our nation. But there is no other nation on earth quite like the United States of America. The idea of “America” is why hundreds of thousands of people risk life and limb for the opportunity to come to this country every month. It is why millions of people—both native born and immigrants—put on the uniform of our military and are willing to sacrifice their lives in defense of this noble experiment in democracy.
So, on this Fourth of July 2022, we celebrate America. Without apology or caveat, we look back over the last 246 years with a deep sense of both gratitude and amazement. And we say full-throated: God bless America.