This weekend, many of us will fly our flags high outside our house. Some of us will host barbeques and others will attend the parties of friends and relatives. Still others will attend fairs and watch fireworks light up the sky. We do all of these things for one simple reason: we are free. In July of 1776 John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail:
“The second day (it turned out to be two days later) of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.” (Adams Family Papers, Mass. Historical Society)
While we will celebrate with speeches, games, sports and “illuminations” in the darkening skies of American towns and cities everywhere, I am humbled that Adams emphasized “God Almighty” while giving thanks for the “deliverance” that we celebrate this weekend. In a nation that is often polarized by religion and secularism and constantly at each other’s throats, it is with humility that I suggest giving thanks to God this weekend as well.
God has a long history of freeing captives. From the long road the Israelites took out of the bonds of slavery in Egypt to the modern “Moses” in Martin Luther King, Jr. there is a profound history of those who have seen God and testified to the freedom that God has placed in every human heart. We all long to be free. We all long to make our own choices in life and to be given the space to make our lives the way we want.
It would be fitting as we approach this celebration of independence and freedom to remember that we live in a society increasingly hostile toward religion. We as a nation have had our moments of intolerance and hostility toward Muslims in the wake of September 11th. In the early part of the last century Americans turned away Jewish refugee ships (even firing warning shots at them) sending them back to European countries that would eventually be overrun by the Nazis. All because they were Jews. We have marginalized religions that are not “mainstream” and yes, we “religious people” have even fought against each other.
Christians are not exempt from persecution either. From a court in Texas who threatened any high school graduate who publically used a word that could be interpreted with a Christian or religious tone (such as “prayer”, “God”, or “salvation”) with imprisonment to the threat of lawsuit for any school who had the audacity to claim any kind of tolerance for religion in their ceremonies or students, we as a country have certainly slipped in upholding one of our founders’ calls to give “devotion to God Almighty” for the freedom we enjoy.
Which is not to say that you must. That is the basic premise of freedom. You see, I think that we as the people of this country have gotten so sensitive towards each other that we miss the spirit in which this country was founded. It began as a group of religious refugees, entrepreneurs and some prisoners and indentured servants. Hundreds of years later, these people came together to agree that the oppressive governments that they fled for fear of their lives, for example, would not be the kind of government system they would want. They wanted a place that would give people the freedom to walk down the street shouting at the top of their lungs their faith in whatever God they chose without the fear of taking a bullet, getting a sword or finding themselves in chains.
Unfortunately, the phrase “if they could only see us now” comes to mind. Today we silence religious speech. We hide behind interpretations of rules that were designed to protect people of faith from persecution, not give others the power to silence them. There is no freedom in the silencing of another man for your own personal comfort. In July of 1776, a country was born that would become the “crossroads of ideas.” Today, we are erecting detours along many of those roads. We have hung stoplights that never turn green and we have torn up some access to those highways of higher debate. We have lost our freedom, often in the name of maintaining it.
As we reflect on this weekend and we celebrate in all of the other ways that Adams wrote about to his wife, let us soberly reflect on the one we are often curbing in this day and age – God. I am not writing this to say that you must believe in God or celebrate Him in order to “correctly” celebrate the Fourth. What I am asking is that you do not say that in order to be a true American I must sacrifice what I believe. What is great about this nation is not so much that we can have a robust debate about anything, but for a long time what was great about this nation was that it wasn’t necessary for me to believe what you believe or for you to believe what I believe for us both to function in society together. As long as the government is not forcing you into my pew (and I would stand shoulder to shoulder with you fighting against a government that would) I would only ask you not to force me out of mine.
Let us turn our hearts today, toward TRUE freedom!