We, citizens and residents of the United States, celebrate the Fourth of July holiday this weekend, a federal holiday which marks our nation’s independence. If we were to survey St. Irenaeus parish, it is quite possible that half of our parishioners were born in another country. Many of us learned about American history and civics early on in school, in literature, or when we became a naturalized U.S. citizen, but now it is appropriate to recall our lessons in history, our rights and obligations as U.S. citizens, particularly in light of what is happening in our nation today.
On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was ratified by the Second Continental Congress declaring that the thirteen colonies were no longer subject to Great Britain’s rule. Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration and he effectively asserted that each person has God-given rights that cannot be taken away by any form of government or despot.
On September 17, 1787, eleven years after declaring independence from Great Britain, the Constitution of the United States was created at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and it was ratified on June 21, 1788. The purpose for the Constitution was made clear in the Preamble:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The Constitution originally only contained Seven Articles. It delineated the government into three equal branches: the legislative, the executive, and the judicial. With their own power, the three branches of government check and balance each other. It has been amended twenty-seven times; the first ten amendments collectively known as the Bill of Rights. Of particular importance to people of faith is the First Amendment where the right to the free exercise of religion is protected. One can say that the Constitution is a living document since amendments can be added by Congress to meet the needs of the nation as it changes and evolves.
The American Civil War (April 12, 1861-May 9, 1865) was the greatest test to the enduring power of the U.S. Constitution and to America as a nation. In his speech memorializing the soldiers of both the Union and the Confederate armies who died at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln harkened back to the ideals at the birth of our nation, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln’s address powerfully acknowledged that blood had been shed in defense of liberty and the soldiers had not died in vain. They died so that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom–and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
On this Fourth of July holiday, we are grateful to be living in this great country where liberty and human rights are attributed to God our Creator. The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are not the antithesis to the Christian life and Christian philosophy. Although U.S. citizens and residents may come from a different race, culture, or faith traditions, we enjoy equal rights and equal protection under the law. In diversity we strive for unity. This has been the goal and motto of our nation since 1776: E pluribus unum or “Out of many, one.”
Happy Fourth of July! And God bless America!