Faith And Fireworks
During my childhood, the dusk of a mid-summer's day was for me a time of thoughtfulness and calm. One particular summer's eve, however, did not evoke tranquility, but anticipation. On that evening, I could not wait for the half-light to yield to darkness. For on that night the darkness would reach that mysterious point when the magical display of the Fourth of July fireworks would begin. For the better part of an hour, my young eyes were glued to the night sky lost in the magnificent display of pyrotechnics. Admittedly, my child's mind did not think of the sacrifices of those who participated in the struggle for American independence that the blazing colors above me celebrated. I fear that the events of the American Revolution and the War of 1812 faded before the fun, food, and fireworks. And I did not realize how much religion was in those fireworks.
The historical beginnings of the United States were aglow in the light of religious fervor. The long period of religious strife, spurred on by national political concerns, resulted in a diplomatic protocol among the nations that left religious influences at the door. The United States of America was, in its politics, its culture, and its ethical credo, soaked in religion. This is not to say that religious bias and denominational tensions did not exist, but religion and the freedom to practice it according to your own dictates was a national cornerstone. In his review of Andrew Preston's book, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith, Yale's Charles Hill writes, "I recalled my long-ago work as a member of a team preparing a proposal to reconstitute the old Patent Office building in Washington, D.C., as the National Portrait Gallery. In deciding the criteria by which to select portraits of the most influential Americans, we could pick those whom we regarded as major figures in the present, or those who had been most influential in their own time. If we chose the latter course, we suddenly realized, most of the portraits would be of clergymen."
As the infant nation sought to understand its freedom in politics and in religion, George Washington emphasized in his Farewell Address that the republic will avoid seeing its freedom degenerate into chaos only with a citizenry that is virtuous. And the one unflagging source of virtue was to be found in religion. President John Quincy Adams said, "… democracy flowed from religion, just as religious liberty was made possible by democratic freedoms." In America, noted the French statesman, Alexis de Tocqueville, the concept of liberty and strong religious faith co-existed well. The American people felt early on that they were uniquely called to spread their form of government throughout the world. In essence, Americans felt that they were a chosen people and God's country.
America's presidents saw religious faith as instrumental in forging the nation's destiny. The Civil War made a nation of the American states. From the abundant biblical imagery of his Gettysburg Address to the soteriological terms used in his Second Inaugural, Abraham Lincoln identified America's mission and character in religious themes. The Golden Rule provided the framework of President Woodrow Wilson's plan – the Fourteen Points – to rehabilitate Europe after World War I. President Franklin. D. Roosevelt, a man of basic religious faith, who led America through World War II, understood the evil dictators he faced and the necessity of religion in democracy. The power of religion moving in the heart and soul of an American president is movingly visible in the presidency of Ronald Reagan and his victory in ending the Cold War. The triumvirate of Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and President Ronald Reagan presented an unstoppable political and religious trinity to confront the Soviet Union.
Since President Dwight D. Eisenhower added the words "under God" to our nation's Pledge of Allegiance, the irrevocable connection of faith to our political culture defines America. Charles Hill concludes his review by stating, "If Sword of the Spirit is an epic in which the story of Christianity is recapitulated through American foreign policy, the last couple of decades in Washington seem to have caught up with the meta-history of the ages, as religion, in the United States and, indeed the world, struggles to come to terms with a newly secular global age. At the end, this engrossing book makes its point about religion indisputably: 'Those who conduct U.S. foreign policy ignore it at their peril.'"
As a young boy sitting with my family watching the Grand Finale, I could not imagine, as those fiery blossoms turned to ash and it came time to go home, that someday I would share the responsibility of keeping "one nation, under God" just that.