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Independence Day
By Norm Langenbrunner
Source: The Catholic Telegraph
Published: Monday, June 28, 2010
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The Fourth of July is arguably the closest we Americans come to a national religious celebration (Thanksgiving is a contender). Of course we maintain that proverbial wall of separation between church and state, but Independence Day does focus on a creed (the Declaration of Independence), on a liturgy (picnics, bells and fireworks) and on a memorial (that moment when our founding fathers pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor).

The heart of our national creed is the self-evident truth that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." The reason for forming a government or rebelling against a tyranny is the preservation and promotion of those God-given rights. In 1776 the colonies, "appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions" and relying "on the protection of Divine Providence" declared their right to be free and independent states.

John Adams wrote to his wife that succeeding generations will celebrate a great annual festival with pomp and parade and "solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty...from this time forward forever-more." His prediction of this kind of liturgy and celebration finds an echo in cemeteries, parades and churches across the land.

Somewhere in between the beer and hotdogs (bratwursts in Cincinnati!), in the midst of red, white and blue bunting, there is a moment on the Fourth of July for remembering the courage and sacrifice of our nation's founding generation and succeeding generations who have imitated them. From the Lincoln Memorial in DC to the sunken Arizona in Pearl Harbor Americans pause to remember and many whisper a prayer of thankfulness and praise.

The wall separating government and religion is not so high that Americans must deny either their politics or their religion. When Thomas Jefferson coined the expression "wall of separation" he was assuring members of the Danbury Baptist Association that his administration would in no way impinge on their freedom of religion. Although some in later generations took his words to mean "freedom from religion," was affirming "freedom of." The Constitution guaranteed it.

Our founding generation did not intend to establish a theocracy; the federal government would impose no national religion, no church-mandated laws. Individual states might have to deal with that question, but not the federal government. Yet, having said that, neither did our forefathers intend to ban God or religion from the republic.There were concerns that 18th-century Roman Catholics might be required by the pope to impose their religious beliefs on the new nation. Some papal documents rejected the idea of separation of church and state. But the country's first bishop, John Carroll, in 1784, praised the American system and thought freedom of religion a good way to foster unity of faith.

This perception challenged the presidential election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 because he was Catholic. Kennedy, in a campaign speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, emphatically confirmed his belief in separation of church and state, and added, "I believe in an America where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote."

In 1965 the Second Vatican Council declared that human beings have "a right to religious freedom" and Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 praised separation of church and state as "a guarantee of freedom and autonomy."

Two ideas clashed in Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall": "Something there is that doesn't love a wall" and "Good fences make good neighbors." Our belief in separation of church and state is like that: just as disconcerting and just as necessary.

Norm Langenbrunner is a regular columnist for The Catholic Telegraph, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, which is currently on a summer publishing schedule. This special edition of his column appears only on

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