The Fourth of July is the highest of the holy days of America's civil religion. We "worship" in outdoor pews, at the barbecue grill with hamburgers and hot dogs. Our civil hymns celebrate America the beautiful, the grand old flag and the dawn's early light. Marching bands inspire the congregation with parades down Main Streets from coast to coast, as we beseech God's blessings on America with anthems of hope, unity and gratitude for the democratic spirit that sustains our nation.
The civil "bible" is the Constitution, our catechism the Declaration of Independence. As in Genesis, we had our Cain in the form of slavery, and the impulse to right that gross injustice sprang from deep in the nation's soul, so that freedom would inevitably expand to include everyone.
Robert N. Bellah, the sociologist, christened "The American Civil Religion" a half century ago, inspired by John F. Kennedy's inaugural address recalling the language of the Declaration of Independence: "For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago." This civil religion includes beliefs, symbols and rituals with the call to bear the burden to defeat the common enemies of man, "tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself."
Civil piety is in the tradition of Benjamin Franklin, who wrote in his autobiography that "the most acceptable service of God was the doing of good to men." The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Walter A. McDougall recalled that Tom Paine's famous pamphlet "Common Sense" echoes Moses instructing the Israelites about to enter the Promised Land to honor both the Lord and the Law. George Washington, in his first inaugural address urged his countrymen to show "pious gratitude."
The Declaration of Independence includes four references to God, beginning with the celebrated observation that all men "are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." Such sentiments shaped the thoughts of the Founding Fathers without reference to a specific religious denomination, but to common ideas familiar from the Old Testament and ancient Israel. Lyndon Johnson in his inaugural address told how our early immigrants made their covenant with the land "conceived in justice, written on liberty, bound in union ..." The first pilgrims considered their exodus across an unforgiving sea an escape from a king who granted no religious liberty.