“What is America to me?
A name, a map, a flag I see; a certain word, democracy.
What is America to me?
The town I live in, the street, the house, the room,
the pavement of the city and the garden all in bloom,
the church, the school, the clubhouse, the million lights I see,
but especially the people, that’s America to me.”
Today Americans will proudly display the flag outside their homes to celebrate the optimism and the indomitable sense of freedom of our Founding Fathers. This is America’s national birthday – our 236th.
America resembles an eagle that soars higher than all birds, and from its heights: “Living above the lofty mountains and amid the solitary grandeur of nature, the eagle is a symbol of freedom, whether with strong pinions that sweep into the valleys below and upward into the boundless spaces beyond.” (Eagle Symbol Meaning) The eagle is mentioned in sacred scripture: “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles.” (Is 40:31)
Celebrating Independence Day
Americans celebrate Independence Day with rousing music – high-spirited, and energetic – from the music composed by “The March King,” John Philip Sousa, to George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin to our beloved patriotic hymns. One of these is “America, the Beautiful,” permeated as it is with idealism. Catherine Lee Bates wrote the lyrics in 1893 on the pinnacle of Pike’s Peak in Colorado Springs. The majestic music, composed by Samuel Ward, was composed on a ferryboat in the harbor of New York City. America is “a thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness.” The hymn prays that “God mend [our] ev’ry flaw,” that “God shed [his] grace on [us],” and that we be confirmed “in self-control.”
In 1945, Frank Sinatra made famous the song, “The House I Live In.” Intended to oppose anti-Semitism and racial prejudice at the end of World War II, it pays tribute to the American experiment, so dearly fought for and expressed in the opening words of our Declaration of Independence. The lyrics, now almost seventy years old, are of course products of the World War II generation. Nevertheless, they are refreshingly homespun and evoke a feeling of gratitude for our “God-given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Earl Robinson, its composer of the words and music, compares America to a house:
"The house that I live in: a plot of earth, a street,
the grocer and the butcher, or the people that I meet,
the children in the playground, the air of breathing free, all races and religions,
that’s America to me."
The lyrics continue:
"The place I work in, the worker at my side,
the little house or city where my people lived and died,
the howdy and the hand-shake, the air and feeling free,
and the right to speak my mind out, that’s America to me.
The things I see about me, the big things and the small,
the little corner newsstand and the house a mile tall.
The wedding and the churchyard, the laughter and the tears,
and the dream that’s been a-growing for a hundred-fifty years."
The final stanza recalls our famous Presidents, our fight for freedom, the torch of liberty and our home to welcome all God’s children; it celebrates the goodness of our people who praise God for a land of worth and beauty. This is a house we call freedom. This is the house we live in. President Lincoln once said that “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose of our freedom, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
Colonial costumes, parades and picnics, hot dogs and hamburgers, barbecues and fireworks – these make up the fun of Independence Day. And in our churches, there are special prayers and patriotic hymns for religious freedom.
Our American Enterprise
The story of American independence began early in the seventeenth century with the quest for political and religious freedom. Our founding documents are rooted in these two freedoms. The First Amendment to the Constitution states that the government has certain limited powers to preserve the good order of the people, but “government is not juridically omnipotent.” One of its limitations has to do with the distinction between state and church, in their purposes, methods, and manner of organization.
“The freedom of the Church is a pregnant phrase,” writes Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J. His thoughts as articulated in “We Hold These Truths” mean, in the first place, the freedom of the Church as a spiritual authority to carry out her divine commission. But, secondly, it means the freedom of the Church as the Christian people to live within her fold an integral supernatural life, a life with inherent super-political dignity that transcends the goals and power of the state. The Church then lays claim to immunity from subordination to the state and its temporal ends. The chief example of this is matters dealing with the dignity of the whole person, marriage and the family.
Religious freedom is freedom from coercion; it is the absence of constraints and restraints on individuals in their efforts to pursue freely the positive values of religion. In this sense, the first colonists were united in their determination to worship freely and without constraints or restraints from government and society.
Religious freedom is the recognition of the inviolability of the human person, individually and in association with others in what concerns religious belief and action. In other words, the people are united in their religious freedom to believe and practice without any governmental coercion, restraints or constraints. The political or civil freedoms of the First Amendment, unlike later freedoms or rights, were assurance against coercive action by government and society. (Francis Canavan, S.J., “Religious Freedom: John Courtney Murray, S.J. and Vatican II”)
In an address given on April 4th 1943, the Venerable Fulton J. Sheen observed what was both startling and obvious. “A proof that we are in danger of losing our freedom,” he said, “is that everyone is talking about it. Picture a group of men on a roof-top proclaiming in song and story the glories of architecture, while below saboteurs have already knocked out half the foundations of the house – and you have the picture of modern freedom.”
Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom (1965)
The conciliar fathers spoke to the issue of religious freedom, though they could not have imagined the urgency their words would take on in 2012. Religious communities, they wrote, “have the right not to be hindered in their public teaching and witness to their faith, whether by the spoken or by the written word.” In addition, religious communities “should not be prohibited from freely undertaking to show the special value of their doctrine in what concerns the organization of society and the inspiration of the whole of human activity.”
The Religion Clause of the First Amendment
We celebrate our liberty in law, and the establishment clause has two parts: the government (a) shall make no law establishing a religion, and the government (b) shall not prohibit the free exercise thereof. This clause is a good law but not a religious law; it is not an article of faith but an article of peace in a pluralistic society. What can be further stated about the First Amendment?
1. America has proved by experience that political unity and stability are possible without uniformity of religious belief and practice, without the necessity of any governmental restriction on any religion.
2. In areas allotted to the government, it is easier to differ without civil strife when religious differences are excluded.
3. The Catholic Church, for example, is better off when left alone to carry out its identity and its mission. Why? Because religious freedom is guaranteed not only to the individual Catholics but to the Church as an organized society with its own law and jurisdiction. In other words, “this independent authority has been the essential element of freedom in the political tradition of the Christian West.” (Canavan)
Anti-Catholicism in the United States
Anti-Catholicism, the last acceptable prejudice in the United States, has a long history, but a new anti-Catholicism has taken on a subtle coloration – coercion by the government in the name of freedom. It appears as the virtuous counterpart of hatred; it is alive and well.
In 1642, the Virginia colony, and later the Massachusetts Bay colony, passed laws prohibiting Catholics from settling there, but the law was repealed within ten years. In 1719, Rhode Island imposed civil restrictions on Catholics, but in Pennsylvania, and then in Maryland toleration of Catholics was permitted.
In the entertainment industry, Catholics are prime targets for writers, for film and television producers who hold contempt for the Church and do so with stunning ridicule. This is because the Church is still viewed as profoundly set apart in the modern culture by reason of her high standards and teachings. The Church is a thorn in the side of a visual culture that is secularized and sexualized.
Coercive Power, St. Thomas More, and St. John Fisher
“These are the times that try men’s souls.” It was true for Thomas Paine, and it remains true today. It was true in 1534, when Henry VIII declared himself the supreme head of the Roman Catholic Church in England. He demanded an oath of fealty from his subjects when his request to Rome for an annulment from his wife Catherine was refused – an annulment that would annul the first annulment to marry her. Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher would not bend to a divorce that would free him to marry Anne Boleyn. For this reason, he made a spectacle of them and had them beheaded. They were neither the first Englishmen nor the last to suffer torture and death for the sake of their faith.
In Robert Bolt’s play, “Man for All Seasons,” there is an early and tense encounter between Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas. The Cardinal asks the King’s future short-lived Chancellor to come along with all the rest. More replies with prescience: “Well, I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.” At his mock trial, the future saint declared, “I am the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
“When You Walk Through a Storm, Hold Your Head up High”
These days, cynicism in the country runs high while economic and moral un-freedoms bring us low. But on July 4th, American logic bids our dark sentiments be put aside to rise above life’s oppressive demands and to renew our belief in the American dream. America is a mosaic of distinct cultures formed into one beautiful stained glass window. We are still the greatest country on earth so long as we keep a close eye on St. Thomas and St. John Fisher in the rear-view mirror.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.