On this Friday and the extended weekend, Americans will proudly display the American flag outside homes and buildings to celebrate America’s independence. We celebrate the wisdom of our Founding Fathers to establish a “house” that we would live in, one based entirely on a common idea of rights—of life, liberty, and the pursuit of freedom. It was self-evident to them as it must be for us on this our nation’s birthday—our 238th.
Our Founding Fathers secured American independence and immortalized the reality in words to remember for the ages. Many Americans gather on July 4th to read aloud, and perhaps intone, the Declaration of Independence, the profession of our nation’s beliefs.
Celebrating Independence Day
Colonial costumes, parades and picnics, hot dogs and hamburgers, barbecues and fireworks—these make up the fun of 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, and the majestic music was composed by Samuel Ward. America is ‘”a thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness.” The hymn prays that ‘God will mend our ev’ry flaw and confirm our soul in self-control, our liberty in law.’
Religious Freedom and the Religion Clause of the First Amendment
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. On July 4th, our churches have special prayers and patriotic hymns for religious freedom.
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”)
Losing our Freedom?
In an address given on April 4th, 1943, the Venerable Fulton J. Sheen made an observation about freedom: “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.”
The story of American independence began with the quest for political and religious freedom. These days however, cynicism in the country runs high, and divisiveness threatens fundamental unity. But July 4th is a day of optimism, a day on which it is fitting to ask: “What is America to me? A name, a map, a flag I see; a certain word, democracy. What is America to me?”
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, the song pays tribute to America’s treasure, its people. Earl Robinson, the composer of the words and music, compares America to a house, the house we all live in.
In homespun words, the lyrics evoke gratitude for our God-given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The House I Live In
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 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.”
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 town I live in, the street, the house, the room
The pavement of the city or the garden all in bloom
The church, the school, the clubhouse, the millions light I see
But especially the people;
That’s America to me.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.