This year I had the opportunity to attend Sunday worship on the 4th of July at Christ Episcopal Church in Alexandria, VA – a church regularly attended by George Washington. We heard the lessons read from the George Washington Bible – on loan from Mount Vernon. It was a great time to pause and reflect on the strange interactions of church and state in the US.
I was impressed that both the collect and the readings assigned by the Episcopal Church emphasized neither the rightness of our cause nor our sense of being favored by God. Rather they remind us to love our neighbors and persecutors and ask God for “grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace.” We recognize that power brings responsibilities and that tyranny settles easy on the shoulders of those in power. So we are thankful for our freedoms and aware that we must continuously struggle to maintain them.
I also had a chance to see the Jefferson Memorial, one of my favorites. On the NW wall, this passage appears:
“Almighty God hath created the mind free…All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens…are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion…No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion. I know but one code of morality for men whether acting singly or collectively.”
And likewise, near the ceiling:
“I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
This man, so often called a crypto-atheist by modern atheists, clearly used his faith to justify freedom of thought and freedom of religion. He used a particular religion (Deist Christianity) to uphold openness for people of all religions. And this, for me holds the key to our founding father’s faith(s). That their true love of God led them to create a country where faith would never be coerced. It is somewhat of a contradiction that our liberties should be based on such obedience, but there it is.
It is religion that has granted us freedom of faith, particularly a group of Anglican Christians in the 18th century. The next time an atheist asks you what good religion has done, tell them this: it has made their freedom of belief and the freedom of religion for all people, into a right worth dying for. Indeed, our military defends it to this day.
And so, this independence day, I was very proud of the Episcopal Church, imperfect, founded by imperfect people, but devoted to the notion of personal liberty. They believed that this liberty was the natural state of humanity, and that any human government that tried to take it away, was evil.
Let us not forget that these Anglicans forged a nation of liberties out of the raw stuff of their belief. Let us not forget that we did and do and will make this sacrifice: to never enforce the faith that makes any faith possible in civil society. Whatever the future of the Episcopal Church, we leave this legacy, that we thought more of God’s grace than our own survival, and created a nation where no faith – not even our own – could be imposed.