JULY 3, 2002
Revisiting Independence Day, 1971
-- Lawrence Webb
I recently rediscovered notes I had scribbled in church on a bulletin dated "Independence Day, 1971."
"Going to church on Independence Day proved to be a strange experience. In the service which included patriotic songs and the pledge of allegiance to the nation's flag, I had mixed emotions. My boyhood training of national pride and idealism welled up. But those emotions kept getting tangled with darker feelings. I kept thinking of those whose freedom is abridged in our land -- the blacks who as a people have not known liberty and justice -- and of those in high places who seem to be trying to suppress such basic freedoms as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. We all too readily sing 'My Country, 'tis of Thee' and say the Pledge as if these express realities rather than ideals toward which to strive. In a comfortable, all-white, middle class congregation, we can convince ourselves that these things are so and that God is guiding and blessing America on a predestined course as holy nation---one nation under God."
As I look back, I am struck by how little things have changed. If all are equal in this land of the free, some are still more equal than others. Today many African-American children attend schools that are separate and unequal. In the past nine months Arab and Muslim Americans have received governmental and non-governmental scrutiny at odds with Constitutional guarantees and the lessons of American history.
Another troubling aspect of that 1971 church service is still with us. In many churches on the Sunday closest to Independence Day, it is difficult to tell what, exactly, is being worshipped. Patriotic songs replace Christian hymns, and the Pledge of Allegiance is recited almost as if it is a creed or confession of faith.
As a Baptist, I am fiercely loyal to both my nation and my church. I am equally dedicated to keeping a respectful distance between them. When my Baptist ancestors in some English colonies refused to pay taxes to support state religion, they were jailed and, in some cases, killed. The principles for which they struggled -- free exercise and disestablishment -- are now codified in the First Amendment of the Constitution, and have long been a hallmark of Baptist groups.
James Miller, pastor of First Baptist Church in Providence, Rhode Island -- which is also America's first Baptist church, founded by religious liberty advocate Roger Williams after his flight from the Massachusetts Bay Colony -- recently described his church's distinctive July Fourth celebration to EthicsDaily.com. Pastor Miller said, "Rather than tapping into those old land of liberty-type of songs that are often sung in some churches, I prefer to highlight those old hymns such as 'Be Thou My Vision' and 'God of Grace and God of Glory' that remind us we are citizens of two worlds but that it is God we worship." Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs in Washington, D. C., a watchdog group for church-state separation, told EthicsDaily.com that whatever a church does in celebrating Independence Day, "... we must be sure that we don't overshadow the cross."
For the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Judge Alfred T. Goodwin last week ruled the words "under God" in the Pledge to be unconstitutional, then almost immediately put his ruling on hold. A firestorm of opposition to the original ruling broke out on talk shows and in the halls of Congress, pointing to our inability to separate church and state in our thinking and emotions. Both houses of Congress voted in support of God in the Pledge, and House members gathered on the Capitol steps to say the Pledge and sing "God Bless America." Many Americans defended the phrase "under God" as a precious symbol. But God is much more than a symbol.
Though both tap deep streams of commitment and emotion, faith and patriotism are not identical. Just as being a loyal American has nothing to do with devotion or lack of devotion to God, being a loyal, welcome member of a church, synagogue, or mosque should have nothing to do with one's politics or patriotic fervor. As we celebrate the birth of the United States of America, we must work harder to disentangle religion and nationalism. For now, just as in 1971, the emotions associated with God and country get tangled in the hearts of all.
Lawrence Webb, an ordained Baptist minister and a writer and editor, has served churches from Texas to New York. He is emeritus journalism professor at Anderson College in Anderson, South Carolina.
Editor's Note: The quotes from James Miller and Brent Walker appeared in Ray Furr's EthicsDaily.com article "Celebrating Independence by Celebrating Religious Liberty," (July 1, 2002).