Independence Day

“Independence Day” was delivered on 4 July 2010 © by Rev. Fred L Hammond to the congregation of Our Home Universalist Church, Ellisville, MS

I wonder if the founding parents of our nation 234 years ago were to visit today, would they be pleased with what they have wrought into being or dismayed.   It has often been a spurious argument to attempt to state the intentions of the founders of this nation regarding this or that argument.  Yet, we try to do so regardless.

And while the temptation to speak as to the intentions of our founders is fraught with false renderings, incomplete records, and gaps in understanding, I will endeavor to attempt to sift through the chaff of time to reveal the kernels of truth that have endured as central to our democracy and American dream.

Three of our most sacred national documents reveal a mind-set of the responsibility of government that all people should enjoy.  The Declaration of Independence from Great Britain decreed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.[1]

The preamble to our Constitution states, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence [sic], promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.[2]

And during the most trying of time in our union, the Gettysburg Address declares “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.[3]

I wonder if our forebears who wrote these words would recognize our government today as seeking to fulfill these ideals or would they weep and gnash their teeth in despair?  I fear the latter yet I am filled with hope.

These words from these sacred texts of our government have been subjected to a wide variance of interpretation.  On the extreme right we have a libertarian interpretation where the basics of our constitution would be fulfilled with the bare minimal government action.  General Welfare would only be defined as keeping our borders safe from invasion and therefore provisions for social security, Medicaid, welfare, aid in times of disaster and the controversial and still yet to be realized universal healthcare is not part of this definition. The libertarian viewpoint would be that the people out of their charitable and religious convictions would themselves provide these services either through their religious affiliation or through the founding of non-profit entities which would also be funded by people.  What wasn’t provided through these means would then be sought through private enterprise at a cost to those who could afford it.

We have examples of these already throughout our nation.  We have non-profit and for-profit hospitals and clinics.  We have public and private education from pre-school through the post-doctorate level. We have non-profit and for-profit social services for the mentally and physically challenged.

On the left extreme we have a socialist interpretation where the government is the provider of the common good.  We have examples of these as well in our nation.  We have social security and Medicare for our retired seniors.  We have railroads and interstate highways that are maintained by the government for ease in transportation. We have Welfare assistance for the disabled.  We have state police to protect and serve.  We have firefighters and public libraries. Our public education ensures a standard of education for all citizens.

There is a wide spectrum that falls in between these two poles of political thought and a few more poles from different angles criss-crossing these poles including economic overlays of how business is conducted and what roles government has in regulating business enterprises.  How does the government “promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” in regards to economic theories of capitalism and free market enterprises versus nationalized industries?   Who is included in these “blessings of liberty” when corporation business practices are involved?

When corporations are able to influence elections with unrestrained financial contributions who benefits from such a practice?  When banks are given free reign to extort funds from the average consumer, knowing that consumer does not have the ability to pay the mortgage, how does this promote the blessings of liberty?  When stock markets are given carte blanche to gamble their clients finances through hedge funds and default credit swaps and then when it all collapses to bail the markets with taxpayers funds, how is this promoting the general welfare of a nation?  Independence is a rare commodity in today’s corporate economic climate.

It is the question of how a country can fulfill the pledge of the declaration of Independence, the preamble of the constitution and a government by, of, and for the people that continue to be at the heart of the debate that is raging in our nation today.  These questions of independence were never quite answered by our founders.   It is a question that needs to be answered by every generation anew.  How to fulfill this ideal is our most pressing question for this generation.

Into this mix comes the resurgence of dogmatism, specifically religious dogmatism but there is a secular dogmatism as well that is on the rise.   In the last few years, people have been asking what role should government have in allowing people to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Does government have a vested interest in the definition of marriage?  This long and honored institution certainly falls into the pursuit of happiness that our founding documents state is an unalienable right granted to us not by governments but by the spirit of life itself.  This question is being debated currently in the courts in California where Prop 8 is being contested as being unconstitutional in banning same sex marriage. If the answer is yes, does government have the right to limit its definition to a particular religion’s definition placing preference above other religions’ definition of marriage, such as Unitarian Universalist’s definition of marriage?  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

I came across a response on Facebook to a stranger who took exception of a photograph of a father and son who had temporarily tattooed “No H8” on their faces.  The stranger wrote:  “How sad you have your child pose for something he has no idea what it stands for, this country is a disgrace if you think that same sex marriage is normal you need to seek the truth and the truth will set you free.”  The person in the spirit of independence answered with this response:

“First, as responsible parents, we have an obligation to guide our children down a moral path that we feel is best for them until they reach a level of maturity to choose such a path for themselves. For example, I would guess that you made your children attend church services before they truly understood what Christianity stood for, before they understood that there are hundreds of other religious beliefs to choose from or that there is a mountain of scientific evidence that stands in opposition to religious belief altogether.

“Further, wouldn’t you agree we can’t give our children complete free will to choose what they wish to do? My son doesn’t understand the importance of eating his vegetables, but I make him do it anyway.

“These arguments aside, however, the truth is that my son DOES understand what this picture stands for. Nearly all children from an incredibly early age understand the importance of fairness, that people should be treated equally. What’s unfortunate is that, for most, these intrinsic values are eventually torn away and replaced by religious indoctrination. [4]

To raise our children in the spirit of independence is to assist them in being able to live in a world of diversity. If each person has the right to have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then it is vital that we teach our children tolerance and acceptance of differences.  It is important that they are equipped with being able to answer the question posed by our founding parents for their generation.

It is clear that our founders did not even consider the possibility of same sex marriage in the late 18th century. But they did consider the problems of one religion having authority over another.  Further they saw the problems of government enforcing a particular religious doctrine or creed onto a populous that is diverse in religious expression.  To do so increases the possibility of oppression and restricting the ability of people to choose their own path towards life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The states are claiming state rights in the decision of same sex marriage but this argument did not hold when interracial marriage was debated in the late 1960’s.  At some point in the not so distant future, state rights in defining marriage according to one religious doctrine, regardless if it is the majority doctrine held by people, will not hold either.

Should we allow history and science to be taught that contradicts my religious faith or political beliefs?   Remember I mentioned this polar extreme between libertarianism and socialism that our country operates in politically and religiously.  So we have the Texas state school board insisting that certain scientific facts such as evolution or certain historical debates such as separation of church and state should not be taught.  Why?  Because these topics go against their religious beliefs.

Some fundamentalist Christian groups believe that the ideal government is best achieved when Jesus returns to set up his kingdom on earth.  Religious kingdoms are not democracies but rather theocracies, benevolent ones according to these beliefs but theocracies nonetheless.  The only examples we have of modern day theocracies are oppressive regimes so it is hard to imagine that one led by a fundamentalist Jesus would be any different.  These particular fundamentalist groups want to pave the way for the second coming of their king by creating laws and scenarios that reflect their beliefs.

There is nothing in our constitution that prohibits a state to mandate what is an acceptable educational curriculum. The federal government has stated that government shall make no laws regarding the establishment of a religion or the free exercise of that religion.   And therefore this question of what can or cannot be taught in our schools is left open to interpretation.  However, consider that there is no independence of thought when a particular religion can hold sway over what is taught in a state education system.

Should we allow undocumented immigrants who have children born here to become citizens?   There is proposed legislation in Arizona that would prohibit children born here to undocumented immigrants from becoming citizens.  The so called anchor babies’ legislation is an attempt to prevent their parents from finding a means towards naturalization and citizenship.  This proposal which is gaining momentum not only in Arizona but in Congress violates the 14th amendment of the constitution which states, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”

Arizona is claiming that they have state rights to create laws to protect their citizens as defined in the Bill of Rights amendment 10.  State rights are an issue that was never fully answered by our founding forebears.  In fact they decidedly side stepped the question in creating the declaration of Independence and in creating the constitution.   The declaration of independence in the initial draft by Thomas Jefferson deplored the existence of slavery supported by King George III. Hypocritical perhaps since Jefferson himself had several slaves but the paragraph was removed in concession to state rights to govern as they saw fit.

State rights were used again in defining slaves owned as 3/5ths of a person in giving representation to congress.  The newly formed congress gave in to the states ability to govern as they deemed fit in order for the more populated white north to retain a majority in the federal government legislative branch.  The question of whether states had the right to oppress others when the newly formed federal government declared equality of all men was again not answered.

To define what state rights means in the bill of rights continued to be argued throughout the 1800’s.  And while some southern historians argue that the civil war was fought over state rights[5], this question was never settled.  The southern states exercised their opposition to ending slavery by seceding from the union, an ultimate test of state sovereignty but the question of state rights was not answered only the question of slavery.

The residual effects of slavery remain as a blood stain on this country 145 years after slavery ended.  Independence as declared in our country’s documents for our citizens of color still eludes them in many ways.  And the unanswered question of state rights is still part of the system that holds them down.

I do not know what the answer will be for our nation in the question of state rights to self-determine their fate.  But if we are to be true to words in our declaration of independence and our preamble to our constitution then the line must be drawn by the federal government in terms of what is permissible and what is not.  In regards to ensuring human rights, this seems to be primarily a function of the federal government when states do not abide to the spirit of our nations most sacred texts.

As Unitarian Universalists, we need to be ready to stand on the side of love in regard to these questions.  If we seek to answer these questions with what is the most loving, what is the most freedom affirming, what is the most liberating action that can be done, then we cannot veer too far off the path of what our founding parents meant when they wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  May we celebrate these values this Independence Day.  Blessed Be.


[1] As found at  http://www.earlyamerica.com/earlyamerica/freedom/doi/text.html

[2] As found at http://www.usconstitution.net/const.html#Preamble

[3] As found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gettysburg_Address

[4] Used by permission of author As found at http://www.facebook.com/miguel.santana?v=wall&story_fbid=135201343170964#!/note.php?note_id=128947497141157&id=100000322926383

[5] I contend that the argument that the Civil War was fought over state rights is an attempt by those who wish to hide the shame of our racist past.  It seems nobler to say our ancestors fought the Civil War for the cause of state sovereignty than to admit our ancestors were racists and wanted to continue the heinous act of slavery.

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