The Religious Foundation of Freedom
As we reflect on the history of our nation’s founding on this Fourth of July and also bring to a close the Fortnight for Freedom, it is appropriate to recognize the role that religion has played in that effort to build a free and just society. No small part of that history is the generosity of spirit of the first Catholic colonists who arrived in Maryland in 1634 and established a civil government based on religious liberty, an act that anticipated our Declaration of Independence and the subsequent First Amendment to the Constitution.
We are all aware that we live in a world that is highly oriented toward science, technology and information, as well as a time of aggressive secularism that seeks to exclude God and religion from the public forum. But these are not the factors that keep us free. As Thomas Jefferson stressed in his Notes on the State of Virginia, “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?” (Query XVIII (1792)).
The words of our nation’s founders make undeniably clear that religious faith is not only at the historical foundation of the American experience, but religion is essential to freedom. For example, a few days before our nation’s birth, John Adams wrote to a relative saying that statesmen might “plan and speculate for liberty, but it is religion and morality alone, which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand” (Letter to Zabdiel Adams, June 21, 1776).
The Declaration of Independence itself recognizes the self-evident truth that fundamental rights and liberties are not manmade, but have their origin in our Creator, who has endowed us with certain unalienable rights, including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” With respect to the pursuit of “happiness,” Congress did not mean worldly pleasures or material wealth, but instead used the term in the classical sense of leading a life of moral good and virtue.
At the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin asked that prayer be offered to begin each day’s session, attesting that “the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth – that God governs in the affairs of men” (Speech of June 28, 1787). Likewise, George Washington, widely lauded as the “father of our country” and our first president, counselled, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports” (Farewell Address, September 19, 1796).
While the founders came from a variety of faith traditions, they uniformly agreed that there could be no freedom without God. That same religious faith that marked our nation’s beginnings, with its wide range of religious traditions, continues to thrive, inspire, form, and give identity to who we are today. Since we are both members of the Church and citizens of a country that has long prided itself on being “the land of the free,” we expect the presence of God to be appreciated in public life.;.
Religious believers stand, as they have from the beginning, ready to serve our nation in the public square, helping in particular the poor and vulnerable while shedding the light of God’s wisdom into the heart of the great American experiment in religious pluralism and liberty. In this way, we contribute to the common good, advance human dignity, and foster the natural and spiritual prosperity of our people.
Rooted in faith and aware of God’s providential care, we pray with confidence and hope that God will bless our nation. This we do because we are a people of faith and, therefore, a people of prayer. In our fervent and sincere prayer, all of us recognize our relationship to God and God’s care for us individually and collectively. This is the reason we can pray, “God bless America.”