As July the 4th approaches, I was meditating on its significance. There is much debate on the role of Christianity in the American Revolution. Some downplay or ignore Christianity's role, or see it as negative altogether (part of the reason we needed a revolution in the first place).
- They point out for example that founding fathers like Washington, Jefferson and others were not Christians but Deists who, once the bullets stopped flying, promptly codified their Enlightenment convictions by establishing the separation of church and state. This observation is correct.
- They point out that some Christians supported loyalty to Britain, while other Christians (pacifists like Quakers and Mennonites) supported no warfare at all. This too is correct.
- They point out that churches were in the vanguard of developing ideals that we associate with American values of liberty: that the individual conscience (not rulers or states) is the final authority on moral matters; that membership in a church is not a birthright, nor decreed by a government, but is a voluntary choice of the redeemed; that church governments and their representatives are the product of the will of the people. These and other "democratic" developments in the churches were extended to the state.
- They point out the effect of the First Great Awakening (c.1735-c.1755) on the heirs of the Puritan "City on a Hill": that it was more than just a massive, years-long revival; it instilled the conviction among the revived colonials that Christ was establishing his kingdom in America, and that oppressive British rule was in the way.
- They point out that pulpits throughout the colonies, which at the time functioned as a chief source for information and learning, were among the greatest rallying points for independence and the call to arms.
- They point out that the Calvinist emphasis on the depravity of humankind would be reflected in the future U.S. government with its system of checks and balances and the separation of powers as means to curb innate human selfishness, greed, and tendency to corruption.
- They point out that numerous speeches and writings which are among the most famous in American revolutionary history were thoroughly imbued with religious rhetoric, or were sermons direct from the pulpit, that painted rebellion against Britain as a holy war.
Rightly do we celebrate the 4th of July for such a representative freedom as the world had never known that was purchased at the cost of so much blood.“Gentlemen may cry, ‘Peace, peace’ [Jeremiah 6:14] but there is no peace. The war is actually begun....Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” Patrick Henry before the House of Burgesses, St. John's Church, Richmond, Virginia, March 23, 1775.
But, make no mistake about it, the liberty won was extremely limited. It did not end slavery (which actually worsened after the revolution). It did not include women. It did not include Native Americans. Even poor white men where often little better off than indentured servants.
It is sad to say so, but the American Revolution established "elite liberty," and failed monumentally in achieving equality. The same thing happened in Latin America's revolution. "The elite," said the great revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar, "want liberty, but only for themselves." And we are still struggling for an America that benefits "the least of these" (in the words of Jesus), not just men, or light-skinned people, or the rich.
Before and since the Revolution, many have challenged America's glaring inconsistency in the application of liberty. In a 1773 letter to Quaker Robert Pleasants, the great Patrick Henry himself admitted his own inconsistency: he could not free his slaves from "the general inconvenience of living without them."
Translation? Give me liberty or give me death, but I can't afford to free my slaves.
Henry said he could not justify his conduct and lamented lack of conformity to his belief that slavery was "evil." His hope was that his generation would transmit Christian virtues and "an abhorrence for slavery" to their children, and if they could not abolish slavery then at least they should "treat the unhappy victims [slaves] with lenity [not harshly]" and that this was "the furthest advance we can make toward justice."
If you love America and if you are a Christian, I want you to think carefully and honestly about the inconsistencies in the application of equality and liberty you see around you, or perhaps committed by you from "the general inconvenience of living without" such inconsistencies. Is it inconvenient to treat others as you want to be treated? Is it inconvenient for the ancestors of the old immigrants to see any hypocrisy in their nativism against new immigrants, even the undocumented ones? For what "pioneers" and "progress" were to Europeans was theft and conquest to the Indians. Is it inconvenient to resist financial practices or business ventures that earn you wealth but diminish the earning power and quality of life of working people? Is it inconvenient to pay women the same as men for the same job.
The revolutionary fathers admitted that the American experiment had gross inconsistencies of EVIL (their word). And this was their answer: (1) Let's hope our children will love liberty so much that they'll sacrifice their conveniences so others can enjoy it; (2) or let's just try to soften the evil by being nice to our inferiors.
Maybe it's not the rhetoric of liberty but living the creed, "do to others as we would have done to ourselves" that makes it possible for there to truly be "liberty and justice for all."
If we celebrate the 4th of July without taking practical steps to ensure that freedom from oppression and exploitation (racial, gender, economic, corporate, etc) is not just something we want for ourselves and our loved ones, but for everyone, then we will be just another in a long line of generations that let the 4th go by unfinished.