The Amazing Experiment
I love the 4th of July. The parades and picnics, the swimming and baseball (as long as the Rangers are winning), the fireworks carefully synchronized to the 1812 Overture. Of course it is a little strange that we would choose to celebrate our independence listening to an overture written to celebrate the victory of the Russians over the French, but I still love to listen to it.
Another thing I love to do right around the 4th, and I will do again this week, is reread the Declaration that Thomas Jefferson wrote and Benjamin Franklin edited 237 years ago. A minister named John Buchanan inspired me to re-read it as a way of loving America on July 4th, for it is an amazing document. It announces to the world that the thirteen British Colonies in the New World are now independent, and it eloquently expresses the reasons why.
It is signed by the delegates elected by the 13 colonial assemblies and sent to Philadelphia to meet as a Continental Congress. John Adams signature is there in his neat, legible style; John Hancock signed boldly, of course; Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, the Presbyterian physician, are there. And if you look carefully in the next-to-last column, about two-thirds of the way down, you will see the signature of John Witherspoon. Witherspoon is one of my favorites because he was a Presbyterian minister, the president of the College of New Jersey, which became Princeton University.
He was the only clergy to sign the Declaration, and when he did, he said something about it being better to sign that document and be hanged as a traitor than to die of old age.
I imagine one of the reasons he believed so fervently in that declaration was because the values imbedded within it sound very Presbyterian: human liberty, the notion of the dignity of the individual and the sanctity of the human conscience. In fact, the document says that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights among them, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
It goes on to say that governments, which are instituted to secure these rights, derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed." Not from any divine right, but from the consent of the people. In other words, not from the top down but from the bottom up. It was the beginning of the world’s great experiment with democracy.
The founding principles of this new way of being a nation were embodied in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights which were adopted a a few years after the Declaration. The first amendment of the Bill of Rights begins: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The amendment states that the government will not establish any one religion over all the others, and the government will not prevent its citizens from practicing whatever religion they choose. This is freedom of and for religion, which is possible only if the government remains neutral on matters of religious policy and practice, neither establishing some religions nor prohibiting others.
But there have always been some Americans, and there are some now, who would like to make their particular religious beliefs the law of the land. There are some on both the left and right who assume there’s only one way to be religious, or un-religous for that matter — and that’s their way.
We have both liberals and conservatives in our own faith tradition who assume they can legislate their particular vision of the Christian faith and life and compel all citizens to live by that one version. They assume the courts and judges should agree with them and will enforce their own personal understanding of right and wrong. We have heard these voices this week with the Supreme Court voting on some very important issues and the Texas legislature’s vote on abortion.
Folks who think this way cannot imagine that Christians might come to different conclusion about the great issues of our day — and yet still be Christians. But it happens all the time, doesn’t it? We come out at different places. We hold different views.
Believe it or not there’s at least some evidence now that the reason for those differences may run deeper than either our religious convictions or our political preferences. They may actually be influenced to some degree by our genetic inheritance.
Now nobody is claiming that our ideas and opinions are encoded in our DNA, but a report just a couple of years ago in the American Political Science Review suggested that our genetic make-up prompts us to respond instinctively to the changes and challenges around us. For some the instinct is to respond cautiously and traditionally; for others to respond openly and progressively. It’s almost as though we can’t help being conservatives or liberals!
Still, we’d like it if everybody else thought the way we do. But if I tell you that, because I hold certain views, I am on God’s side, and because you hold certain other views you are not on God’s side — I’m not being religious. I’m just being arrogant. I’m using religion to drive a wedge between us, not build a bridge.
If I tell you that, because I go to a certain kind of church, I’m in a position to know what God’s will is, and because you go to some other church, you cannot possibly know God’s will, I’m not being more righteous than you are. I’m simply being self-righteous.
And if I tell you I intend to use the power of the federal government to enforce my understandings of God’s will on you, I’m not advancing God’s kingdom. I’m violating the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.
On the other hand if we can heed the advice of the prophet who said that the Lord requires us to do justice but also love kindness and walk humbly with God, if as Ben Franklin warned the framers of the Constitution, "I doubt a little of my own infallibility," if I openly acknowledge that I do not know the mind of God on every question facing us today, and if I concede that my truth is only partial at best, and that your truth might have something to add to mine — then maybe we can look for the truth together. And as we do, maybe we can overcome some of the meanness that’s so prevalent in our moral discourse in this country.
The Bill of Rights was written by people who believed that government has no business trying to answer religious questions — not because those questions are unimportant, but because they are too important for government to try to control.
I think those of us who value our religious commitments have a moral obligation not to claim sacred authority for secular matters. That’s rendering unto God what belongs to Ceasar. When we use religion to justify partisan politics on transient political questions, matters about which good and reasonable people can and will differ, we do not elevate our politics; rather we devalue our religion. That’s rendering unto Ceasar what belongs to God. Arrogance and self-righteousness are self-defeating in any cause, and particularly so in most worthy causes.
President Abraham Lincoln understood this well and spoke of it in his Second Inaugural Address in 1865. By that point, the Civil War has been raging for almost four years and the nation was weary, same as we are weary of the cultural war that has gone on far too long these days. In his speech, Lincoln invoked God several times, but each time in a spirit of humility.
He did not declare he knew exactly what purpose the war served in God’s providence. "Fondly we hope" Lincoln said, "fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away."
President Lincoln did not claim that God was on the side of the Union, nor did he say the Confederacy was on the side of the devil. Instead he said, "both read the same Bible, both pray to the same God, and each invokes God’s aid against the other." He goes on — "but the prayers of both could not be answered. And that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes" said Lincoln, yet he still did not claim what those purposes were.
The one thing Lincoln was sure about was what it would take for the nation to go forward after the war. He said "with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves."
Isn’t that the America we all want to see?
"With malice toward none"— not even toward those who disagree with us.
With firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right — not just assuming we are always right.
To bind up the nation's wounds — not continuing in an ideological battle that no one can really win.
To achieve peace — not unanimity, not uniformity, but peace.
Isn’t that the kind of America we long for?
America has always existed in the tension between what we set out to be and what we have turned out to be so far. The fact that we keep striving toward the principles on which our nation was founded is what makes America great. The face that we have never finally or fully achieved these principles is what keeps America humble.
But these principles are only abstraction until they are embodied in the American people. We embody them by the choices we make about how we will live our lives. It is up to us to give flesh to this most amazing experiment of ideas ever attempted and to make this democracy work.
A message for us as individuals and as a nation.
We have so much more in common than the differences we emphasize.
Brent's call for us to live that as citizens and as Christians is a wonderful gift that I plan to forward to my friends - believers and nonbelievers alike.