With our separation of church and state, the civil religion is not theological, but a philosophical umbrella to unite people of faith and of no faith to enjoy what George Mason described as "the fullest Toleration in the Exercise of Religion." It was Mason who wrote Virginia's Declaration of Independence, tracing the rights of life, liberty and the possession of property to "God and Nature, vested in, and consequently derived from, the People." The city on a hill was built with the hard work of those whose faith in God enabled them to bring forth on the continent the new nation conceived in liberty.
Our ideals were forged, as the British historian Paul Johnson observes, in a "traditionless tradition," with religion arriving without structural hierarchies. The new world offered a fresh start with the self-evident conviction that all men are created equal, even though for a time we honored that only in the breach.
Abraham Lincoln caught the spiritual nature of America with the wit and insight that Americans are "the almost chosen people," flawed but striving to do and be better. He delivered that observation on his inaugural journey to Washington, stopping in New Jersey to address the legislature, recalling the state's Revolutionary War battlefields where many gave their lives so the nation might live. He referred to himself as the "humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty ... for perpetuating the object of that great struggle."
This week we observed the 150th anniversary of three bloody days at Gettysburg. The men who fought there knew they might not see another Independence Day. They nevertheless gave the last full measure of devotion with neither reluctance nor complaint.
American soldiers stand on foreign soil to fight once more to guarantee our freedom and liberty, this time against enemies who plot against us because they despise what the Declaration of Independence and the Fourth of July are all about. We pray for their safety and cherish their willing sacrifice to guarantee the freedom to worship as the heart dictates, not as harsh instruction of government. The rockets' red glare that lights up the night sky of a glorious Fourth is the reflection of grateful hearts, recognition of our blessings and the faith of our Founding Fathers.
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