[The Pharisees asked him], “Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
– Matthew 22:15-21
As we approach our nation’s 241st birthday on July 4th, this passage came to mind. We are all children of God, owing our Father first devotion and first allegiance. As created beings with a loving Father, our rights are therefore, not granted, but only safeguarded by our local, state and national governments. The wise Irish Member of Parliament Edmund Burke was quick to remind that any government leader who fails to secure the right to life, liberty and property was illegitimate. Why? Not because that leader is the source of such rights, but because he is the humble custodian of them; he is entrusted to deliver that which comes from God and belongs to everyone.
And so it is proper that second to our faithful worship and devotion to God – the Source of our life and rights – we celebrate the birth of our nation. Appropriately enshrined in our country’s revolutionary document, The Declaration of Independence, is this vital assertion: God is the Source and government serves only as custodian of our indispensable rights.
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 of 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.
It is also fitting that we celebrate a nation that has, at its root, the mission to protect the practice of religion. True faith can neither be compelled or denied. It must be offered the environment in which to flower under Conscience and Free Will, individual practice and community participation. As the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights begins,
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
To live in a country (albeit imperfect) where our Founders recognized that rights exist, that they come from God, that they cannot be taken away, that the government serves as custodian not Source of these rights, and that the freedom to practice religious faith is the first of those rights…now, that is pretty extraordinary. It is also something that should not be taken for granted. Just consider…all one has to do to understand the genius of American democracy is look around the world to see innumerable despotisms of ideology, radical faith and pure greed where the first priority is to seize power and then snuff out God and God-given rights.
So it only makes sense that, on this Fourth of July and for the next year, we take a little time to familiarize (or re-familiarize) ourselves with the fertile soil in which our country is rooted. Turn off the television. Put aside your favorite news websites (which at best give you their interpretations). Quiet your surroundings of the loud angry voices dominating today’s political discourse. And read.
What should we read to become re-acquainted with our country’s foundations? Let me offer these suggestions.
To understand America, we must understand a little about why we became America instead of simply remaining British. Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration (adopted by the Second Continental Congress) to articulate what human beings are fundamentally owed by their government and why the thirteen colonies must separate from the British crown. The Declaration is a document of courage and vision set forth by a fledgling nation to a British juggernaut. Read and consider the hope for a bright future and the potential for deadly consequences.
Born out of the insufficient Articles of Confederation, the Constitution is a masterwork of legal thinking. It offers the indispensable structure of government (legislative, executive, judicial branches) but more importantly, the Constitution weaves the vital checks and balances within and between branches to prevent the growth and consolidation of power that inevitably comes from the appetites of men. Amended twenty-seven times, the first ten amendments comprise the Bill of Rights intended to positively define that which government cannot take away. This document is more than a legal one. It represents an earnest effort to prevent the establishment of despotism while promoting the dignity of man. How does it do this? By recognizing that the story of mankind is a complex tale of dignity and fallibility. Brilliant.
Okay, now we’re getting a little into the weeds. But these are VERY important weeds. The Federalist Papers are the nation’s gift from its Founders. In the run up to the vote on Constitutional ratification (by the individual states), Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison pseudonymously circulated eight-five essays in defense of the Constitution. These essays are glorious and nuanced expositories of the Founders’ thinking about perceived weaknesses and operational holes articulated by critics (many published as The Anti-Federalist Papers). The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia repeatedly scolded that no high school student should be allowed to graduate without having read The Federalist Papers. Here’s just one example why. In Federalist #51, James Madison articulates the reason for the proposed structure of government secured with checks and balances:
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
In declining a third term as President (and establishing the gentleman’s standard of a two term presidency until the 22nd Constitutional Amendment required it in 1951), President George Washington, the lion of the Founders, penned a Farewell Address to the country. In it, Washington provided the model of statesmanship promoting unity, comity and humility as the nation moved ahead into increasingly choppy waters. It is worth reading. And re-reading.
And for an even greater opportunity to reacquaint yourself with each branch of government, consider these gems…
Speeches from the Executive Branch
Speeches from the Legislative Branch
Opinions from the Judicial Branch
To be sure, our first allegiance is to God. And our country is founded on the belief that its government is to be a faithful custodian of our freedom to worship. But we also serve as citizens of a country. If we are to be thoughtful, engaged and vigilant citizens, it is our duty to be familiar with our nation’s foundational works. And we must pay attention to our government’s substantive operations (not nonsense bickering) that will affect our lives and the lives of our children. It may require time and patience, thought and consideration, but it is necessary. It is, quite simply, what is required.
In the mid-twentieth century the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill, acidly quipped,
“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
Don’t be the average voter.
Happy Independence Day.
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