200 years ago the War of 1812 rocked our newly won sovereignty to its core as residual resentments between our Union and Britain remained, and a bloody, 32 month conflict was ended only after Washington was burned to the ground.
State of the art transportation was a horse drawn buggy, candles and oil lamps lit rooms and hallways, armies fought with muskets, slaves comprised the manual labor of agrarian states, and agreements were honored with just a handshake to bind them.
A Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, drafted from a Revolution, were still relatively new, and America, although growing more powerful from that promise of freedom, was still considered an experiment in Democracy; no one was absolutely certain that it would work.
Central to the theme of this great republican trial was religious freedom, arguably the cornerstone of all the freedoms our founding fathers envisioned and designed in their documents to uphold a constitutional government.
It was nearly 200 years before the revolution when immigrants from England made the treacherous journey across the Atlantic to escape the Church of England seeking freedom from persecution. Over time they, themselves, exercised their own forms of persecution between settlers of other denominations, but central to the cause of the immigration to America was a concept of freedom.
It was amorphous and roughly drawn from their sense of dignity coupled with desperation, but it was nevertheless the motivation for their adventure to an unknown land and was the premise by which they would form new laws, and begin to resist a King.
By the mid-18th century colonial farmers and tradesmen still carried the torch of the original pilgrims adventure, but now these Americans were turning their collective spirit toward the tyranny of a British Monarchy that demanded from them what their innate sense of justice told them was unfair.
10 years after the implementation of The Stamp Act in 1765, the colonists declared war against Britain on the grounds of unfair taxation, and from the historic winds of change rose a rag tag collection of Christians, Deists, and Unitarians who transcribed the calling of human beings toward freedom and justice into words of action.
Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” published in January of 1776, is regarded as the original primer that put this aggregate spirit of freedom into the context of a new government and to fan the populist flame of revolution. Only 6 months later Americans read the Declaration of Independence for the first time and now a document existed to eloquently express a noble purpose.
(Note: While I forgive our revolutionary forebears for the context and complexities of their time, I cannot overlook that human bondage was a legal practice that took another hundred years to abolish).
The Declaration makes it clear that governments created by humanity derive their powers from the consent of the governed, and it served as the adumbration for the Constitution which followed. It is not a legal document, but a statement of purpose to define and to defend the Inalienable Rights of Men (human beings) in the pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness.
When the Revolution was won and a Constitution was drafted, the framers very carefully constructed its First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
There is no mistaking what these words mean. They are the very definition of our hard won Republic and they frame the security upon which it rests.
“No law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” specifically and clearly outlines that we cannot fall under the auspices of a national religion, and that any religion can be freely followed or expressed. If there is any leeway for interpretation it would only regard the freedom from religious practice, as well, but no free nation, founded on inalienable rights, can exclude non practicing agnostics and atheists.
Freedom of speech is a broad concept in terms of what it entails, but it is specific at the same time as it means that government cannot legislate to curtail the free expression of ideas.
This would again, logically, include the expression of religious beliefs, but as we have the right to express them, they cannot become the law of the land.
This Grand Experiment in Democracy is now a third of a century past 200 years, and while we can rest assured that we are stronger today from the fruits harvested from freedom, the conviction of some of our constitutional principles are fading or forgotten.
The modern interpretation of the original rebellion that calls itself “The Tea Party” has carried into its vague (yet dogmatic) agenda, theocratic ideas that are contrary to our founding purpose.
They, and many others with an extreme conservative philosophy, believe that we should be a Christian nation; that the Founding Fathers constructed and fought for a nation with exclusively Christian principles; that the “natural God” and the “Creator” referred to in the Declaration of Independence was specifically the Christian God.
It is almost on a daily basis that I will read or hear someone state the belief that our Founder’s design for America was born exclusively from Christianity. But, when we look critically at the story of our nation it is clear that such an exclusionary religious concept is contrary to all of our freedoms and would be, in fact, un-constitutional.
It is irrefutable that Christianity was a primary influence on the creation of our nation and that Christianity embraces many of the moral directives that define our ideal Republic, but it is also irrefutable that one doctrine cannot be the sole proprietor of such virtues.
And to secure our freedom for the next 200 years we must be vigilant toward understanding that distinction.