July 4 is a religious holiday. For this insight, thank John F. Kennedy.
On July 4, 1946, Kennedy — then 29 years old, the Democratic nominee for a Massachusetts Congressional seat, and still a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve — was the featured speaker at the City of Boston’s Independence Day celebration. He spoke at Faneuil Hall, the red-brick building where long ago the colonists had gathered to protest taxes imposed by King George III and his Parliament.
Kennedy began by talking not about taxes, or about the British, or about the consent of the governed, but about religion. “The informing spirit of the American character has always been a deep religious sense. Throughout the years, down to the present, a devotion to fundamental religious principles has characterized American though and action,” he said.
For anyone wondering what this had to do with Independence Day, Kennedy made the connection explicit. “Our government was founded on the essential religious idea of integrity of the individual. It was this religious sense which inspired the authors of the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.’”
It was a theme that Kennedy would return to during the 1960 presidential campaign, when, in a speech at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, he described the Cold War as “a struggle for supremacy between two conflicting ideologies; freedom under God versus ruthless, Godless tyranny.” And again in his inaugural address, on January 20, 1961, in Washington, D.C., when he said, “The same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”
Whatever Kennedy’s motives were as a politician for emphasizing this point, on the historical substance he had it absolutely correct. The Declaration of Independence issued from Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, included four separate references to God. In addition to the “endowed by their Creator” line mentioned by JFK in his July 4 speech, there is an opening salute to “the laws of nature’s God,” an appeal to “the Supreme Judge of the World,” and a closing expression of “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.”
A signer of the declaration, Samuel Adams, writing to a friend on July 9, wished the declaration had been issued earlier: “If it had been done nine months ago we might have been justified in the sight of God.”
George Washington, announcing the Declaration of Independence to the troops in a General Order dated July 9, wrote, “The General hopes and trusts, that every officer and man, will endeavour to live, and act, as becomes a Christian Soldier defending the dearest Rights and Liberties of his country….knowing that now the peace and safety of his Country depends (under God) solely on the success of our arms.”
The theology of the country’s founding has tended to get lost in the decades since Kennedy’s death, to the point where if someone unveiled the document anew today, hard-core separation-of-church-and-state types might even see it as a violation of the First Amendment’s clause prohibiting Congress from establishing a religion. The Declaration’s concept of God-given rights certainly is not without its flaws. God, alas, tends to be quite reticent when it comes to weighing in on disagreements about the definition of rights. Some extremists invoke God’s name while attempting to deprive others of rights. Atheists and agnostics, of whom there are increasing numbers these days, are left out.
For all that, there are some signs that a recovery is brewing of the theology of July 4. The Tea Party movement, after all, is not only a call for smaller government (“taxed enough already”), but also a conscious effort to recall the vision of the founders, of the original Boston Tea Party. Dave Brat, the economics professor who upset Eric Cantor in a recent Republican primary for to represent Virginia’s seventh congressional district, said during his campaign, “a belief in God and the faith of our Founders leads to strong moral fiber. That’s probably the most important ingredient in this country.”
So amid all the fireworks and barbecue smoke this July 4, consider pausing for a moment to reflect on the one our founding fathers called the Creator. As Kennedy realized, the American Revolution — and thus the country we live in today — started with God, and with the Founders’ belief in rights that are his gift to us. Whatever your religious views, or lack of them, if you are an American, it’s at least worth understanding the idea on which our nation was founded.
Ira Stoll, author of Samuel Adams: A Life and JFK, Conservative, is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com.