Friday, July 4, 2008

The Reason for the Fireworks

On Independence Day, Americans celebrate their founders, visionaries who were centuries ahead of their time.

Thomas Jefferson, for instance, foresaw the threat of climate change long before Al Gore and recommended surveys of temperature and rainfall at 50-year intervals to assess the impact of human settlement on the wilderness. Benjamin Franklin and James Madison were equally concerned with population pressures and the long term carrying capacity of the planet.

But the founders were even more prescient in their political views. When George Washington was elected president, there was still a king in France, a czar in Russia, a shogun in Japan and an emperor in China. The prevailing wisdom held that governments were divinely instituted, with rulers appointed by God to preside over their subjects.

The United States, on the contrary, predicated its Constitution upon the authority of "We the People," never mentioning a deity. Legitimate power derived not from sacred writ but from the consent of the governed. So John Adams cautioned that the framers never "had interviews with the gods or were in any degree under the inspiration of Heaven," that ours was the "the first example of government erected on the simple principles of nature."

The concept of popular sovereignty caught on. Now, kings are a vanishing breed, while even the most brutal despots must hold sham elections and at least pay lip service to the people's will.

Our founders, moreover, invented the notion of human rights. In an age of slavery, it was an ideal they practiced imperfectly, and their complicity in the trade was their greatest moral failure. But even the worst offenders, like Jefferson, unleashed the radical precept that "all people are created equal," and once that spark of freedom was ignited, the fire would spread. The idea that individuals possessed a natural right to life and liberty led to the demand for civil rights and women's rights, the rights of labor and of children, gay rights and the rights of indigenous people -- even animal rights. Our world has been transformed for the better, thanks to the flame they kindled.

Most important, our founders embraced the principle of religious pluralism. Violent wars had engulfed Europe in the 17th century because of the presumption that citizens of the same nationality must share a single creed. Millions died in conflicts that pitted Protestant against Catholic and everyone against the Jews. Determined that faith could be a positive, cohesive force in human affairs, the Founders guaranteed that America would be a land where spiritual variety might flourish. No religious litmus test would be imposed as a bar to public office. Under the guarantees of the First Amendment, people could worship differently, according to the directives of their conscience. The government would stay doctrinally neutral. In answer to the recurring question -- was America intended to be a Christian nation or a secular one? -- the founders would have rejected the premise. They intended the United States to be a land where faith could thrive in the private sphere, and while believers of all stripes might compete for converts, they should never compete for political domination or tax dollars or military might. That's what led to the religious convulsions of the 17th century -- and it's what the founders, by separating church and state, tried to avoid.

Today, thanks to their wisdom, the United States is not only one of the most devout countries on earth. It is also the most spiritually diverse, where mosques, churches, synagogues and zendos are filled with ardent seekers. In contrast to many lands where religious feelings run high, Christians, Buddhists, Moslems, Hindus, Jews and atheists manage to live in tolerable harmony in this nation of ours.

It's a legacy that people of all persuasions can commemorate on this Fourth of July.

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