Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Reason for the Fireworks

On Independence Day, Americans remember their Founders.  Far from being passé, the men who gave birth to this country were visionaries—centuries ahead of their time.

When George Washington was elected president, for example, there was still a king in France, a tsar 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.  So John Adams cautioned that the framers “never were in any degree under the inspiration of heaven,” that ours was the first state “based solely on the principles of nature.”

The concept of popular sovereignty caught on.  Now, monarchs are a vanishing breed, while even the most brutal dictatorships hold sham elections and at least pay lip service to the peoples’ will.

Our Founders, moreover, virtually invented the notion of human rights.  In an age of slavery, it was an ideal they practiced imperfectly.  But even the worst offenders, like Jefferson, unleashed the radical precept that “all people are created equal,” and once that spark of freedom was kindled, 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.  Who can doubt our world has been transformed for the better, thanks to these liberation movements?

Most importantly, our Founders embraced the principle of religious pluralism.  Violent wars engulfed Europe in the seventeenth century because of the presumption that citizens of the same nationality had to share a common 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 could flourish.  No religious litmus test could be a bar to public office.  Under the guarantees of the First Amendment, people could worship differently, according to the directives of their personal conscience.  The government would be doctrinally neutral. 

In answer to the recurring question, was American intended to be a Christian nation or a secular state, 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 religions of all stripes might compete for converts, they should never compete for political domination or military might.  That’s what led to the religious convulsions of the seventeenth century—and that’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 in the world.  It is also the most spiritually diverse, where mosques, churches, synagogues and zendos are filled with ardent seekers.  In contrast to many nations where religious feelings runs high, Christians, Buddhists, Moslems, Hindus, Jews and atheists here manage to live in tolerable harmony.

It’s a legacy that people of all faiths can celebrate on this Fourth of July. 

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