“We hold these truths to be self-evident ...”
So begins our nation’s Declaration of Independence from Great Britain.
These days, very little is self-evident. If anything, our world is contradictory, a society of anomalies: dependent on plastics and fossil fuels, but damned by disastrous pollution and greenhouse gases. We seek a world of individual expression and peace among all nations, but are torn by fear of terrorism and concerned about unbridled immigration. We are dedicated to the positive benefits of our schools in shaping our children, but often feel burdened by supporting the system. We seek to maintain a healthy population, yet our people are squeezed by ever-rising costs that undermine the medical profession’s ability to serve.
Culturally, we are fascinated by life in the information age — texting, Skype, social networking — but desperately crave human contact and the old-school ways of expression: books, newspapers and live performance. We desire a strong leader at the helm of our government, but demand the checks and balances of our republic. We are mesmerized by wealth and the good life, yet impelled to search for joy and meaning that cannot be purchased.
On this Fourth of July it’s worth remembering that, while English law provided a basis for rights we are proud to call American, the first people to leave the Old World and settle here had views on religion similar to those in many countries today.
The pilgrims did not step onto Plymouth Rock and proclaim the founding of a new nation dedicated to religious freedom for all. They wanted relief from government persecution and freedom to practice their own religion as they saw fit. They wanted to be left alone. They had no concept of government apart from religion, no desire to foster freedom for others and no tolerance for dissent.
The Puritans who followed the Pilgrims were more zealous in enforcing their brand of religion. Failure to attend church on Sunday was a criminal offense in early Massachusetts, as was working or “gaming” on the Sabbath. Civil rights, like voting, were dependent on church membership and women were required to cover their arms in public. Religious nonconformists, like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, were banished from the colony.
It took another 160 years after the landing in Plymouth for the idea of religious freedom to be extended beyond a particular brand of Christianity and separation of church and state to be enshrined in the Constitution. And it’s a concept many Americans still have trouble with today as they try to use the Legislature to impose their views on others.
The road to democracy is rocky and long, as our own history shows. In the revolutionary period, a group of brilliant and dedicated statesmen created a nation based on the most profound and lasting principles, a daring experiment in democracy never before attempted in the history of the world.
“With a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor,” states the Declaration, committing the colonies to a brutal and costly war and laying the foundation for an even greater achievement, the drafting of the United States Constitution.
While so much has superficially changed since the 18th century, the American instinct to discuss, debate, challenge and ultimately, govern by compromise, remain hallmarks of our national policy.
The Declaration of Independence was presented to the Continental Congress on June 28, 1776. On July 4, 1776, the wording of the Declaration of Independence was approved and sent to the printer for publication.
Two hundred and forty-three years later, it is well for us to remember the spirit in which our nation was born and the sacrifices made for our inheritance.