This July Fourth holiday weekend, I am thinking of three important events in our history. The first occurred 237 years ago, the second 150 years ago, and the third just a few days ago. These three events explain what America means to me now.
An edited version of Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence was published 237 years ago with these words in the second paragraph: "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." However, these were not Jefferson's words. He originally wrote, "We hold these truths to be sacred . . ." The difference between a sacred truth and a self-evident truth is immense.
The idea that God endows people with their freedom because of their equal creation in the image of God is many things, but one thing it surely is not is "self-evident." The idea that our rights come from God is, I believe, true, but it is not self-evidently true.
The statement, "A bachelor is an unmarried man" is self-evidently true, but the statement that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights is not. It is true the way faith is true, and America is based on faith, not self-evidence. If our rights come from the state, then the state can revoke them, but if our rights come from God, no power on Earth can revoke them. The only way to keep our rights secure is to keep them sacred. However, and this is critical, the belief that our rights come from God is not at all the same as believing that our rights come from Judaism, Christianity, Islam or any other religion.
No religion, Jefferson correctly believed, speaks authoritatively for God with regard to political philosophy. Our rights come rather from a universal idea of God that transcends any particular religion. Jefferson was a deist, not a Christian. Deists believed in a God of reason, and the Declaration of Independence is its perfect statement.
What this means is that there must be what Jefferson famously called "a wall of separation" between religion and the state. In this way, practicing any religion -- or no religion at all -- did not compromise a citizen's rights. America is founded on the belief that our rights come from God, but our own private and personal lives do not have to be founded on such a belief.
There's a connection between God and America, but there must be no politically significant connection between specific religions and America. Zealots on both sides of this culture war would do well to learn from the other side just enough to achieve both humility and respect for the soaring vision Jefferson created.
The Declaration of Independence was a document poorly edited by a committee, but also a document initially written by a genius. The Battle of Gettysburg was fought 150 years ago, and it saved America. It affirmed in blood and sacrifice Jefferson's sacred truth that all people, regardless of color or any other defining or dividing characteristic, are equal in the eyes of God and therefore have equal rights as citizens of America. This belief was hard fought and hard won and is still being played out, but it is the foundation stone of our democracy.
Laws can divide us, but God unites us, and America is built upon this concept. Thank God for Gen. George Meade and his victory over Gen. Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg and the sacred truths that defended America.
This week, 19 courageous firefighters in Arizona lost their lives battling a raging wildfire. They were young, strong and fearless, and now they are gone. I want to lift up their sacrifice not only as an act of courage but also as an act of patriotism.
Our country is not only people but also a land. It can dry out and be ignited by lightning, and it can threaten to burn us down. What those firefighters did was to lay down their lives to protect America, and they did not have to do that. They acted on a sacred truth to preserve life. Thank God for them and for the sacred truths that preserve America. May their souls rest in heaven, a sacred place and the origin of the sacred truth.