Today’s celebration of independence, declared 233 years ago with the eloquent strength of Thomas Jefferson’s persuasive and powerful words, calls all Americans back to a time and an idea whose radical liberty defied the extant orthodoxy of politics and how government controls and shapes people.
The Declaration of Independence led to a successful armed revolution for independence from Great Britain and an overthrow of the privileges given people and institutions because of their station in life.
Few things so convulsed the status quo as the soon-following Constitution of the new nation whose First Amendment succinctly empowered the grievances of the Declaration:
“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.”
Standing behind the new freedom from the coercion of crown and other prevailing powers, including official religion, was an intellectual revolution that valued religion but did not insist on it in precise forms, by creed, or by any guidance except individual conscience, freely chosen, if at all.
Jefferson, who did not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the son of God as does orthodox Christianity, nevertheless clipped portions of the New Testament, redacting others, to make his own kind of bible to read. Jefferson believed powerfully, but he and many others of the Founders and Framers did not believe in a conforming way.
Journalist and historian Jon Meacham writes in his brilliant book, “American Gospel – God, The Founding Fathers, and the Making Of A Nation,” that James Madison also carried the same torch as Jefferson, quoting him, “’Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess, and observe the religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yielded to the evidence that has convinced us.”
Madison, Jefferson and the others, Meacham wrote, understood, “Many if not most, believed; yet none must.”
That freedom has allowed our beliefs to enter public debate with vigor and persuasion, shaping our country through the earliest tests, through a Civil War fought about enslavement of black people, through the struggle for the rights of women as fully equal citizens, through the battle to end racial segregation, and in still unfolding constitutional debates with moral and ethical content shaped by what we believe, whether driven by religion or driven in revulsion from its practices.
The God of public religion, Meacham writes, “is not the God of Abraham or God the Father of the Holy Trinity. The Founding Fathers had ample opportunity to use Christian imagery and language in the Declaration … and the Constitution, but did not. … They wanted God in American public life, but, given the memory of religious warfare that could engulf and destroy whole governments, they saw the wisdom of distinguishing between private and public religion. In churches and in homes, anyone could believe and practice what he wished. In the public business of the nation, however, it was important to the Founders to speak of God in a way that was unifying, not divisive.”
Freedom is the great persuader and in America’s context, we are free from fear of sanctioned reprisal.
NEMS Daily Journal