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Jay Richards: Make Independence Day an Act of Deep Remembrance

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

For most Americans, Independence Day is an opportunity to celebrate those American founders who risked their lives and their fortunes in a daring experiment in liberty. Such celebration is a form of gratitude, and all gratitude involves, to some degree, remembrance. So it’s heartening that many Americans, resisting the Progressive lurch of our contemporary politics, are embracing their American citizenship by learning about both the founders and their ideals.

But the ideas on which the American Experiment was based did not spring up ex nihilo in the minds of Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, Washington, Adams, Jay, et al. They also have a history. And if we are to recover the ideas of the founders, we would do well to recall the foundations of those ideas.

It’s a truism that Western culture is a complicated mélange of Greek, Roman, old Germanic, and Judeo-Christian ideas. Unfortunately, the West suffers from a severe case of collective amnesia when it comes to remembering how many of our ideas rest on a Judeo-Christian foundation. The case is acute in Europe. Rev. Robert Sirico lists some of the more embarrassing examples of such amnesia, but my News-of-the-Weird nomination is when the European Union determined not to mention either God or the indisputable role of Christianity in the formation of Europe.

The United States is less far-gone in this respect, but extreme secularists have succeeded in convincing many of us that every manifestation of religion in the public square is a subtle threat to freedom. Nevertheless, most Americans still know at least vaguely that the idea of human equality before the law, though imperfectly actualized in all institutions, is grounded in the biblical idea that each of us is created in God’s image. The idea was so much a part of the cultural air of colonial America that even Thomas Jefferson, among the least conventionally religious of the founders, could write in the Declaration of Independence that our being endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights is “self-evident.”

Sirico points out that many of our other ideals—often treated as inimical to religious tradition—also spring from a Judeo-Christian root:

The very idea of limited government and hence tolerance (yes, tolerance, which is not to be confused with the relativism offered as a substitute) emerge from the Judeo-Christian view of the sovereignty of God in personal and social life, rather than the sovereignty of political elites.

The very juridical systems we have grown accustomed to—and have been the envy of the world—did not just appear; they unfolded from the logic of the biblical faith. So, too, with the scientific method which followed from the knowledge that, if things are ordered by a divine plan and we are made in the image of God, then the truth of the physical world is knowable to reason.

Christianity has endowed Western Civilization with a priceless heritage. To lose this to a mass amnesia in the culture, would be an inestimable loss to the sense of who we are as a people and to any real hope we might have of building a just and tolerant future.

This heritage of freedom, stretching deep into Western history, is the subject of the documentary, The Birth of Freedom, which is being broadcast this weekend and in the weeks to follow on some PBS stations. (I had the privilege of serving as the film’s executive director, so I can say without a shred of objectivity that it’s an incisive and emotionally powerful telling of Christianity’s role in the slow rise of political, economic, and religious liberty in the West.)

The website for the documentary contains a trailer, a good deal of historical source material, and video interviews with some leading experts. It’s a good place to start if you’re interested in recalling, learning, or helping others to learn about the deep roots of the freedom we celebrate every Fourth of July. Those roots define, in part, what it means to be an American citizen.

Jay Richards is a contributing editor at The American.

Cross-posted at the Enterprise Blog.