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What is it to be a religious American? And, in particular, a Christian American in an age of increasing diversity and pluralism. Many Christians across the United States have just observed Independence Day, the Fourth of July, and we did so, many of us, in our churches. Some folks may have objected to that combination of national patriotism and religious faith. But I don't mind the combination. There's something powerful and good about how religious faith has been allowed to flourish in the United States of America, and it is that subject I present to you this day.
Several years ago it was my good fortune to attend a World Cup soccer game being played in our nation's capital, Washington, D.C. The game featured the teams of Mexico and Italy, both of which countries display red, white, and green flags. That day as my friends and I drove past the Capitol of the United States toward RFK stadium, we were overwhelmed by a sea of red, white, and green flags, red, white, and green clothes, even red, white, and green-painted people.
There were thousands of fans there filled with singing, chanting, and genuine good will. I am sure they were American, but they were also Mexican and Italian. Before the game the band played two national anthems, both of which really did seem more rousing than America's national anthem but which I could not follow at all. Again, however, I was impressed with the great good spirit there. During the game, we would hear chants of "Mexico!" then "Italia!" while opposing players who had roughly tackled each other would then stoop down to help their opponent off the ground. After the game, the opposing players hugged one another and exchanged jerseys.
I could not help but think that this World Cup soccer game played minutes away from Capitol Hill represented a piece of America at our best. It was a patriotic event for me. Bartlett Giamatti, the former baseball commissioner, having been promoted from being president of Yale University, once said that a society's sport and leisure represent what that society values in life. On that day, for me, six years ago, our country's opportunity to be the venue for international soccer proved a useful model for our best attributes.
For among our best attributes has always been the ability and the spirit of America to allow different nationalities and cultures to form a new life and culture. This was true when the first Europeans arrived, carrying with them images of England, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, but also seeking to develop something new; hence, they named places such as New York, New London, New Bern.
To this new land these folks also brought their religious faith. They were Anglican, German Lutheran, Swiss and Dutch Reformed, Anabaptists, Quaker, Jewish, and Puritan. Let us never forget when we celebrate the Fourth of July in our churches the startling and sometimes conflicting diversity of religious expression in the early American colonies. When charters were granted to various individuals and companies in the New World, those charters usually stipulated what sort of religious belief was to be allowed. This was true in Western Europe and it was to be true in the new colonies.
My own denomination?the Episcopal Church?is related to those original colonists who were part of the Church of England. South Carolina and Virginia were both established as Church of England colonies where tithes were collected by the government for the maintenance of Anglican churches; and in Virginia, at least, one could vote only if he were a member of the Church of England.
But the people we read about most frequently in our old history books, the Puritans and Pilgrims, for instance, in Massachusetts, they were clearly fleeing the oppression of the Anglican Church. When the Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts Bay Colony were set up, they therefore prohibited the presence of the Church of England. A preacher named Increase Mather wrote a pamphlet entitled, "The Unlawfulness of the Common Prayer Worship," in which he claimed that Anglican worship was papacy and idolatry; and he referred to Anglican prayer as "broken responses and shreds of prayer which the priests and people tossed between them like tennis balls."
The Massachusetts colonies were too strict even for some Baptists and Puritans. Roger Williams and Ann Hutchinson were banished to Rhode Island which became known for all kinds of strange religious liberty. So strange that it was said "if a man had lost his religion, he would be sure to find it in some Rhode Island village."
Maryland was established as a Roman Catholic colony determined, however, to be tolerant of all sorts of Christians as long as they were somehow Christian. In fact, that 17th century colony provides us in the 21st century with a startling example of political correctness. The legislators in Maryland wanted no religious name-calling or mud-slinging. Thus, they imposed a fine, a whipping, and imprisonment for anyone who should call another one of these names: "Heretic, schismatic, idolater, Puritan, Independent, Presbyterian, Popish Priest, Jesuit, Jesuited Papist, Lutheran, Calvinist, Anabaptist, Antinomian, Roundhead, Separatist, or any other name or term in a reproachful manner relating to matters of religion." But this tolerance extended only so far; also on the books was a law which decreed the death penalty for anyone who denied the Trinity or the divinity of Christ.
New York was strictly a Dutch Reformed colony, and they resented Quakers in particular. Hence, the Quakers settled in the southern part of New Jersey. The Puritans and Presbyterians had the northern part. Pennsylvania, started by William Penn, was a Quaker colony. So by the time of the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence which we remembered this week, Americans knew firsthand what religious intoleration was like. They knew what happened when a colony or state or a country tried to impose its own particular brand of Christianity on its people. Such behavior did not lead to liberty, freedom, and independence. It led to dissension, oppression, and even death.
Part of the great American experiment, then, promulgated with the Declaration of Independence and in the United States Constitution, was the dis-establishment of religion. No one religion or one group's form of religion would be the standard of government in this new land. Religious tolerance would be the rule and basis for this country's freedom and independence.
In fact, this decision was a beautiful one for it allowed the brilliant diversity of American religion to flourish. It was influenced, I might add, by some specifically non-religious principles?principles of liberty and freedom which emerged from enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and even Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was indeed a nominal member of the Anglican Church, but his chief contribution to religion is a very small book called Jefferson's Bible. It is small because it includes only those parts of the Bible he thought were believable. He literally cut out with scissors the passages he thought were genuine and useful and pasted them into his own notebook. He and others hearkened back to the classics of Greece and Rome for guidance. That is why our dollar bill, even though it says, "In God We Trust," also includes the great Seal of the United States with these two sayings: Novus Ordo Seclorum, "A New Order of the Ages," and Annuit Coeptis, "He has favored our undertakings." Both these sayings come from the Roman poet Virgil who lived before the time of Christ.
Indeed, America in the 18th century was a new order created from all sorts of religious faith combined with the best enlightenment principles of rationality and liberty. That environment was a frontier environment, ever seeking new land and new ideas, but also trying to sustain established parameters of settled diversity.
As a Christian in this relatively new world of the United States of America, I give thanks today for the separation of church and state, a separation which allows religion to be truly free. This spirit of religious toleration is the same spirit which allows Americans from all sorts of other countries to celebrate their cultural heritages without ceasing to be American. I even believe that some cultures who have had their lives damaged in this nation, such as the Native American or the African American, help heal that damage by their ability to celebrate heritage. This is our country's genius.
And this is what I experienced at a soccer game between Mexico and Italy in Washington two hundred years after the Declaration of Independence. Our country's principles have not changed, even though the issues and cultures and religious expressions do change; they call us to continue this country's finest principles of tolerance and liberty and celebration. We are not perfect yet, as Jesus commands us to be in the Gospel of Matthew, basically because every earthly government and every earthly homeland is not our final residence and citizenship. We are like Abraham, searching for that homeland which only God has prepared for us. Today, we are like the early Americans, too, who searched for that homeland which would provide security and liberty at the same time.
After that soccer game in Washington, my buddies and I ate an early supper among some of the reveling Mexican fans. The tie had permitted Mexico to advance to the next round. The fans were chanting, "Mexico! Mexico! Mexico!" Then they stood up, joined arms and chanted different words: "USA! USA! USA!" They were sincere and in that moment I saw the best of the American religious and political tradition. It is a tradition that Christians should be thankful for in this age of increasing diversity.
Diversity is not a bad thing. Diversity shaped our country by challenging us to build our faith on something deeper than our differences. That faith allowed folks who had been enemies to become friends. Indeed, the separation of church and state allowed early Americans to love our enemies just as Jesus commanded.
Today, I am proud to be a Christian in the United States of America, for that means that I should have the strength to be free and to let others be free as well.
Please join me in prayer.
Lord God Almighty, in whose name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn, grant that we and all the people of this land might have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Sprit, one God forever and ever. Amen.
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