"All must admit that the reception of the teachings of Christ results in the purist patriotism, in the most scrupulous fidelity to public trust, and in the best type of citizenship." – Grover Cleveland, 22nd and 24th President (1885-1889 and 1893-1897)
President Cleveland voiced the truth he inherited from his father, a Presbyterian minister, and from the Founding Fathers in whose shadow he served. What was known and understood by so many, and is lost by so many today, is that the United States was not founded to be a Christian Nation by force, but by faith.
When John Wintrop led many Puritans from England to form the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, he and they envisioned a place of religious freedom and peace. Once established, the colony did indeed create a space where Puritan beliefs were honored and respected, but they soon fell prey to the same persecution they were running from. Establishing rules and rights for only those of the “puritan faith,” earthly fear and earthly power conspired to obscure the Gospel and taint the dream.
One hundred and seventy-six years later, in 1776, the Continental Congress gathered to create a new nation based on the same Gospel dream that Winthrop found and then lost. To ensure that fear and power would not overshadow love and compassion, Congress built into the documents and vision of our new nation the foundation of the Gospel proclamation. Everywhere we look when we study the documents of the founding era we find the tenets of the Christian faith and the plan of faithful governance.
This plan was ‘self-evident’ and known. It was a hope, a dream, that our nation would function based on love, charity, fairness, compassion, honor, integrity, self-sacrifice, self-awareness, and dedication to a higher ideal to which all could aspire. For Christians, this is an everyday action, and for a nation built on these tenets, is truly the opportunity for “liberty and justice for all.”
Often spoken in the public forum, this plan, this idea of a land where religious freedom for all was embraced as an opportunity for witness, was spoken as the foundation for deliberation. In 1850, Theodore Parker, a pastor, and activist, spoke before the New England Anti-Slavery Convention. He said, "...There is what I call the American idea...This idea demands, as the proximate organization thereof, a democracy, that is, a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people; of course, a government after the principles of eternal justice, the unchanging law of God; for shortness' sake, I will call it the idea of Freedom..."
Parker only brought to mind the idea everyone could claim if they knew their history and were confident in the tenets of the founding documents. He tried to remind them of our roots and the hope of what could grow from that first planting: not fear and the quest for power, but honor, integrity, and compassion. Thirteen years later, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln recalled Parker’s words while standing on the grief-ridden land of Gettysburg:
... But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
This moving address makes clear that the grand idea was still alive and had permeated the American mind. That “of, by, and for the people” was not separate from the tenets that hoped this nation into being.
Today we celebrate the birth of our great nation amidst competing claims of ‘special knowledge.’ Constant are the news reports about Christian Nationalists who claim that our nation is only for Christians. Others contend that the United States is “blessed by God,” as Israel was, the new “promised land” appropriate only for Christians. These two views, among others, embody the same tragic downfall of John Wintrop in 1630 and fall victim to the fear and quest for power that promotes biblical heresy. Nowhere in scripture are these views supported and nowhere in the founding of our nation are they proposed.
This 4th of July, our Independence Day, we celebrate the birth of our great nation and perhaps, claim for ourselves a new independence. Independence from the fear and the quest for power which freedom allows, and a new dedication to the tenets on which our nation was founded. The underlying vision of the Founding Fathers of love, charity, fairness, compassion, honor, integrity, self-sacrifice, self-awareness, and dedication to a higher ideal to which all could aspire, are embedded in our national spirit and offered in witness to all the world. As Christians, we reach out in the name of Jesus Christ to embrace all people everywhere, with the hope of a new life. The United States of America has done the same as part of our national identity; not afraid of the loss of power, but confident and faithful in what has formed us and made America great.
Perhaps there is no greater example or witness of our national identity, intention, and confidence, than the Statue of Liberty. I leave you with the poem, The New Colossus, written by Emma Lazarus. This poem was unanimously adopted to represent the national heart and mind to the world. Perhaps you will recognize some of the words, engraved in bronze at the base of the Statue of Liberty:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
“I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Father Bill Burk†