Fourteen years ago I was involved in a very interesting endeavor with the American Assembly, an organization started by Dwight David Eisenhower when he was President of Columbia University before he was elected U.S. President in 1952.
The Assembly brings together people from radically diverse backgrounds and viewpoints for an intensive extended three-day weekend of debate, discussion, and dialogue for the purpose of hammering out a consensus statement of commonly agreed upon principles on a particular topic – this particular Assembly's topic was "Matters of Faith: Religion in American Life."
On Sunday morning we assembled one last time together to reach at least consensus, if not unanimity, on each line of a proposed statement drafted by staff who had been sitting in all the sessions.
This particular Sunday, we spent between 10 and 15 minutes debating the last sentence of the first paragraph, which reads: "These principles are embodied in our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution."
Some of the liberals (ACLU-types and even more liberal) objected to the term "documents" because they wanted only the Constitution, not the Declaration of Independence. Why? Because the Declaration mentions "God" and "Creator" and appeals "to the Supreme Judge of the world" and does so "with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence." In other words, when our forefathers declared their independence from Great Britain, they never intended to declare their independence from the Almighty.
I believe God gave me the wisdom to make the argument that convinced almost everyone (at least a very strong consensus) to include the Declaration as the first of our founding documents. I argued that when President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address on November 1863, he said, "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation."
If you subtract fourscore and seven from 1863, you get 1776. I urged us to agree with our greatest President about the Declaration of Independence's pride of place as the founding document and sine qua non of the new nation.
We then moved on with the "founding documents" of the statement and the Declaration's significance intact and produced what I, and many others consider to be a remarkably affirming document concerning both the extremely positive role that religion and religious liberty have played in American life over the centuries, which concluded with the following statement:
Our diverse communities of faith are a rich resource to our nation, reminding us that we can come to know a good in common that we cannot know alone. This Assembly's work together has reminded us that religious liberty is a bedrock value that animates our republic, undergirds our civic morality, and defines us as a people.
Amen! July 4, 1776 was the birthday of a majestic and exhilarating new kind of freedom, birthed and proclaimed by a new and revolutionary kind of country.
"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."
Happy birthday, America.