Did you know that the Fourth of July is considered in our current Prayer Book as a major feast of the church, with its own collect and Scripture lessons for a celebration on that day?
This wasn’t always the case. When the first Book of Common Prayer was set forth in the first General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the newly-independent United States of America, a proposal for such a celebration was omitted out of deference to those clergy of the church who had remained Loyalists. The 1928 BCP first established such a feast day as a lesser celebration, and the 1979 BCP made it a major feast.
The collect for the day acknowledges the “Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations yet unborn….”
In this appeal to God as inspiration for the founding of the United States, I suppose the framers of this prayer were referring to well-known words from the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
What is the church saying by having the Fourth of July as a major feast? What does this mean about the role of religion in the public square? Currently the question of the relationship of Christianity to the state is a live issue.
I read a news report this week about a prominent clergyman who recently delivered a sermon entitled “America is a Christian Nation.” I’m close to people in my life who seem to embrace this idea. In support of this idea, proponents cite evidence, for instance, of a few signers of the Declaration of Independence who were traditional Trinitarian Christians, while overlooking the well-established historical evidence that most of our founding fathers were Deists.
Is the United States a Christian nation? My response to this assertion is to ask “what does that mean?” What is meant by “Christian?” What is meant by “nation?” Are we talking about the Christianity of the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, or the Christianity of those who kept human beings as chattel and cited the Bible to support it? Is this the Christianity which either directly or by silence countenanced the Three-Fifths Compromise and the Trail of Tears? Does this Christianity countenance the separation of children from their parents at our borders and approve the method of proof-texting the Bible to justify the policy? Does this version of Christianity follow the example of the Pharisee or the publican in Jesus’ famous parable? Would this “Christian nation” meet the standard for the judgment of nations set forth by Jesus here?
In terms of nation, are we talking about the Jamestown Colony, or some other manifestation in the process toward 1776? Are we willing to grant that many Muslims were here as slaves in colonial times and that Washington and Jefferson at least showed some respect for their freedom of religion? Can we acknowledge Washington’s demonstration of support for the religious liberty of Jewish people?
What was intended by the framers of our present Prayer Book in designating the Fourth of July as a major feast?
A clue lies later in the collect, in which we ask God to “grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace.”
I think the framers of the Prayer Book intend for we church members to give thanks for the benefits of freedom which we enjoy, and use that freedom to righteous ends. Those ends are works of mercy and charity and the pursuit of just laws which demonstrate a love of neighbor, especially the weakest and most vulnerable neighbor. In this pursuit we Christians are to make common cause with “all the people of this land,” many of whom will not be believers, and many of whom will profess other faiths.
Today I listened in on a conversation with two eminent historians of American religion: Stephen Noll and George Marsden. They are believers, and they are serious scholars. Their work as historians recognizes the strong role Christianity has played in the life of our nation from the beginning, and they recognize the power for good of Christian religious conviction in the political and cultural life of America. They warn, however, of the tendency to idealize or sanitize history. If Christian believers want to make a case in the public square for a Christian perspective on the common good, Noll says they should seek to
“frame arguments that appeal to the broad population that exists in the United States, the pluralistic religious population that exists, and when history is evoked, to get the history right...that would be much better.”
To this Marsden adds:
“To have a voice, you have to treat the other side fairly. Be willing to be self-critical of your own tradition and say if we have a voice, other people have to have a voice too, and try to treat everyone with equity.”
I’d say that right now Christianity in America is being tested. What does it mean for us to be Christians? Is ours the Christianity of civil religion, or the path of being a disciple of Jesus? Is ours the Christianity that looks longingly back on an idealized American past, or the one that looks forward to "the city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God?" (Hebrews 11:10) Is ours the Christianity the search for a lost Christendom, the feeling of being “on top” of the pile? Or is ours the Christianity which is willing to follow in humility the Christ of Galilee, the Son of Man whose compassion is over all God’s works?
While we think on that, we can reflect on the Prayer Book’s collect “For the Nation,” which also gives us a Christian vision of citizenship in this country of ours.
17. For the Nation
Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the
earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace:
Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the
strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in
accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our
Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one
God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Have a good Fourth of July.