by George Clifford
The Fourth of July—Independence Day—is not only a national holiday but also a feast day observed in our Episcopal liturgical calendar. The newly formed Episcopal Church included the feast in its 1786 prayer book and then omitted it in 1789. The change occurred upon the recommendation of Bishop William White. He contended that former loyalists, who constituted the main obstacle to the Episcopal Church growing, found the feast objectionable. The 1929 Book of Common Prayer restored Independence Day as a feast. That history suggests three lines of thought.
First, the inclusion, omission, and re-inclusion of Independence Day in the liturgical calendar should warn against equating nationalism and Christianity. For its first century and a half, Episcopalians viewed loyalty to Christ and not the nation as paramount.
Today, perhaps much less than in 1786, the United States is not part of Christendom (if one presumes that Christendom still exists somewhere). The US is a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and religiously diverse nation. Consequently, we should object, as did most of the nation’s founders, to legislative efforts to establish Christian teachings or practices. No law can ban private prayer. Conversely, no law can require belief in God. Indeed, printing In God We Trust on US money seems patently hypocritical, as people are often more confident in the dollar’s power than in God’s power.
Second, notions of US exceptionalism—the idea that the US is the new Israel, a city founded upon a hill as a light to the nations, or a nation especially blessed by God—are incompatible with Christian inclusivity and justice. Paraphrasing the book of Acts God is no respecter of peoples or nations, loving all equally.
I proudly served the US Navy for over two decades, ready and willing to go into harm’s way to defend our freedoms and way of life. However, I also knew that the US was neither the most just nor prosperous nation. The US has some admirable characteristics, but we can also learn from other nations. Viewing the US as a member of the global community, co-equal with the other members, best coheres with God’s equal love for all. On Independence Day, we thus do well to give thanks for the goodness of this land and to seek God’s wisdom and assistance in addressing our shortcomings and failures.
Similarly, placing a US flag adjacent to the altar generally sends a wrong message, tacitly implying that God somehow especially favors the US. I have had the US flag removed from the worship space of every congregation that I have served except one. In the military, confusing loyalty to God with loyalty to the nation is an ever-present danger. In my civilian parishes, my congregations have all included citizens from several nations. The one place in which I did not remove the flag was the US Naval Academy. There, as part of the recessional, midshipmen dipped the US flag before the altar dramatically symbolizing the priority of loyalty to God over nation.
Third, we appropriately reinterpret what we celebrate on Independence Day. Our reading of the Declaration of Independence illustrates the positive potential of this process. The well-known, rightly treasured expression that “all men are created equal” originally meant white, property-owning males are created equal. After much struggle, some of which continues even in the present, most Americans now interpret that phrase to mean that all people, regardless of socio-economic status, race, ethnicity, or creed are created equal. This new reading is so widely accepted that the historically ignorant often respond with surprised disbelief when informed of the phrase’s original meaning.
In addition to struggles to end racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual discrimination, we now hear belated calls to end injustice against gays, lesbians, bi-sexual, and transgender persons. This struggle will require, like its predecessors, decades to complete fully but, with God’s help, the arc of history bends inexorably and irreversibly toward justice. Ten years ago, only one state had legalized same-sex marriage. Laws in 20 states now permit same-sex marriage; court rulings are pending in seven more states. Sometime before 2020, same-sex marriage seems likely to become legal in all US jurisdictions.
Economic injustice is more elusive to define and rallying support to end it more difficult. Requirements that voters pay a poll tax in order to be eligible to vote replaced the prior requirement that eligible voters must own property. The poll tax—struck down by US courts as an unconstitutional attempt to limit voter eligibility—has subsequently given way to campaigns in which the winner is almost invariably the candidate who raises the most money. The recent primary defeat of the US House of Representatives Majority Leader, Eric Cantor (R, VA), by an unknown and poorly funded Tea Party candidate is the notable exception to that generalization. Calls for racial justice by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stirred the nation, mobilizing people on both sides of the issue; tellingly, his calls for economic justice were widely ignored and now largely forgotten.
Money does not assure happiness. Research indicates that people living in the US who earn more than $75,000 per year experience only marginal increases in their happiness when their income increases. However, people who earn less than $75,000 (and that is 60% plus of us) experience significant increases in happiness when income improves. In other words, money cannot make us happy, but a lack of money can keep one from having the resources to live a reasonably happy and good life.
A tension between the present and future in-breaking of God’s kingdom on earth echoes throughout the New Testament. Unfortunately, when it comes to money, wealth, and power Christians individually and collectively too often emphasize a future rather than present focus. This tension is evident when one compares Matthew’s better-known but probably later version of the Sermon on the Mount with Luke’s presumably earlier version. Luke, for example, records Jesus taught that the hungry shall be satisfied (a call for economic justice!) whereas Matthew records Jesus taught that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied (spiritualizing and thereby eviscerating the call for economic justice).
Justice delayed is not justice. Will we, as does Matthew’s gospel, spiritualize Jesus’ teachings and emphasize economic justice will only arrive with the fullness of the Kingdom? Alternatively, is God speaking to us through Luke’s gospel, calling us to join in the struggle for justice for the least amongst us? Independence Day is an opportunity not only to celebrate progress toward equal dignity for all but also an excellent time to encourage progress toward equal opportunity for all in the pursuit of happiness.
George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.