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A Thought for Independence Day

The idea of the separation of church and state, a uniquely American idea, was initially considered a dangerous heresy by the Vatican. At the time, the popes were also monarchs of a nation called the Papal States and wore a tiara, whose triple crowns represented the juridical roles of pastor, pope and secular ruler. And at the time it was considered a fact of life that Catholicism was the established state religion of some countries. So you can imagine that the rulers of the Papal States had little use for this odd idea coming out of the United States.

Nevertheless, some prophets such as the American Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray dedicated their scholarship toward integrating the American ideals of separation of church and state and religious liberty into the Roman tradition. It was not an easy sell. As you can imagine, Murray was silenced and punished by the Vatican for his efforts.

But by the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Murray, along with other silenced theologians, found favor with many of the 3,000 bishops attending the Council, much to the horror of conservative Vatican bureaucrats. His articulation of religious liberty and the separation of church and state were adopted by the Council Fathers, and integrated into official Church teaching. Murray’s efforts perhaps reflect the highest and most significant contribution of the American Experiment to the development of universal Christian teaching.

So it is somewhat ironic that America’s chief contribution to Christian teaching is seen by some as an egregious affront to “patriotism.” I put patriotism in quotation marks not because it’s bad, far from it, but because it so often degenerates into nationalism. A recent article by Msgr. Thomas Welbers in The Tidings, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, is sure to generate much heat because it points out that the flag should not be regularly displayed in the altar area, although it is entirely appropriate to place it prominently for special celebrations such as Independence Day. The area around the altar, you see, is reserved for sacred furnishings and symbols, and the flag is not a sacred symbol, despite the assertions of some that it is.

So when we come to participate in liturgy, we may walk past a flag outside the church building. That’s fine. We may enter the vestibule, or narthex, with the flag displayed there. That’s fine. We may stop at a side chapel where the flag is displayed to honor military who have died. That’s fine. But to place the flag alongside altar and ambo is to suggest that it is a focus of our Sunday worship, and that’s not fine. Rather, we authentically honor foundational principles of our nation when we carefully maintain the separation of church and state in our worship. That is our special American character, that is our contribution to the Church. Melding church and state is a step backwards, and an affront to the memory of Fr. Murray and the Fathers of the Council.

No doubt my words will offend some who will feel that I have lessened the honor due our country and our flag. I really don’t see it that way. I am proud of our nation. I consider the bad things we have done and the good things we have done and feel that on the whole we have done more good than bad. I believe the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are remarkable, world-changing documents.

I think of my 9x-great-grandfather Nathaniel Morton, who was the secretary of Plymouth Colony, and my 9x-great-grandfather Deacon John Dunham, a Separatist who emigrated to Plymouth Colony from Holland after fleeing England for reasons of religious liberty. John Hancock was a cousin of mine, as was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. My Luján ancestors colonized New Mexico in the 1600s and my Alvarado ancestors helped to build up California from the time of the first colonial expeditions here. My great-great-grandfather Peter Stoltz, a German immigrant, served in the Civil War to help end slavery.

To me, these ancestors and all those who are less remembered are what Independence Day is all about. It’s not about having the flag in church. It’s about living the legacy of our ancestors and those ideals held up for us at great cost by people like Fr. Murray and Dr. King.

So let’s not blur the lines, like those who drape gigantic American flags in their churches (see how the flag dwarfs the cross in this YouTube video) or urge people to bizarre pastiche devotions like “The Patriotic Rosary” that replaces scripture with readings from George Washington, John Adams, Robert E. Lee and—inexplicably—some wingnut conspiracy theorist named Jedediah Morse, and substitutes patriotic songs for Marian hymns. Rather, in church let us prayerfully recall the sacrifices of those who came before us and ask for the grace to do the right thing as a nation. And when we leave the church, let’s have barbecues and wave the flag and have fireworks and “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

And let’s imagine Fr. Murray at our side in each place, and imagine how he would celebrate with us.

And let’s ask God to bless America.

One Response to “A Thought for Independence Day”

  1. Sandy says:

    Great job Rick!

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