Service at First Church on January 5, 2003 by Rev. David HutchinsonREADINGS
God grant that not only the Love of Liberty but a thorough
knowledge of the rights of man may pervade all the nations
of the earth, so that a philosopher may set his feet anywhere
on its surface and say, "This is my country".
- Benjamin Franklin
No man's sentiment's are more opposed to any kind of restraint
upon religious principles than mine are. If I could now conceive
that the general Government might ever be so administered as
to render liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be per-
suaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to est-
ablish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny,
and every species of religious persecution.
- George Washington
When the crisis came [revolutionary war], Jefferson, Paine,
John Adams, Washington, Franklin, Madison, and many lesser
lights were to be reckoned among either the Unitarians or the
Deists. It was not Cotton Mather's God to whom the authors
of the Declaration of Independence appealed; it was to
- Charles Beard (Historian), The Rise of American Civilization
I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against
every form of tyranny over the mind of man.
- Thomas Jefferson
George Washington not only believed in freedom of conscience and in the separation of church and state, but throughout his entire adult life was a Deist and a free thinker in religion. It is true that he held a nominal membership in a parish church, but so far as he could he abstained from church matters, and avoided taking holy communion. Indeed, for these reasons the clergy attacked him and demanded his withdrawal from the presidency.
Those who wish to make it appear that in spite of this, Washington was somehow, in some obscure way, conventional in religious belief, generally refer to his official speeches in which from time to time he invokes the name of "Almighty God". But they quite fail to point out that he indicates what he means by using synonymously the terms "Divine Providence" or "The great Governor of the Universe" and never such words as could indicate belief in a Trinity or in the God of orthodox theology. To "the great Arbiter of the Universe" he was glad to commit the welfare of the nation…Washington was a Deist: that is to say, he rejected the supernatural and the miraculous and believed in the existence of God on the evidence of reason and Nature only; he thought of God as an Ultimate Cause and as Providence rather than as a being accessible through rituals or as a God to be worshipped according to set forms.
It is significant to recall that as President, Washington confirmed the constitutional principle that the government of the United States is not founded upon any one religion. In the Treaty with Tripoli, which he initiated (and was later ratified under Jefferson's administration) this is completely explicit. "The government of the United States," the Treaty says, "is not in any sense founded upon the Christian Religion." What this means is that the government of the United States is no more founded upon the Christian religion than upon the Jewish religion, or any other religion. It is founded upon freedom of religion. Does this signify that Washington himself had no religious faith? Was he -as his enemies insisted- an infidel which means without religious faith? The only religious faith, however, that Washington was without was the faith of the creeds: the faith of traditional religious institutions. That he believed -and deeply- in a higher religion that rejected dogma but reinforced the spiritual nature and moral capacity of man is attested by his adherence to American foundational principles.
Conventional religion, Christian or otherwise, has produced few such noble characters as that of Washington. As to the supposed advantages of creeds, how many popes are there, or bishops, or ecclesiastics of any faith who compare to advantage with the first President of the United States?
- Rev. A. Powell Davies, America's Real Religion
When James Russell Lowell, American poet and Unitarian, was asked, "How long do you think the American Republic will endure?" He replied, "So long as the ideas of its founders continue to be dominant." If James Russell Lowell were reading our newspapers today and watching CNN, I dare say he might be concerned!! Although we hear the same words of liberty, democracy and freedom, it remains to be seen if they carry the same weight of influence in the world as they did in the early days of our nation. The approach of our current administration in world affairs has left me with an almost "comic book" impression of our idea of democracy; combating an 'Axis of Evil' in a black and white universe making the world safe for democracy and the American way of life. It makes for great rhetoric and political sound-bites, but in reality, it's a little more complicated than that and murkier besides. It is more important now than ever, to return to the foundational principles of our early American nation.
When General Dwight D. Eisenhower became President of Columbia University in 1948, a reporter asked him a question concerning his view of religion:
"I am the most intensely religious man I know. Nobody goes through six years of war without faith. But that doesn't mean I adhere to any sect. A democracy cannot exist without a religious base. I believe in democracy."
Eisenhower was criticized by clergy at the time for his statement. They felt that the spiritual qualities of a democracy itself were not enough to qualify it as a religion. Yet, Eisenhower, far from confessing a casual or inferior belief, was declaring his adherence to the highest faith possible, a faith of values and universal ideals, a faith consistent with many of the early American thinkers.
The title of this sermon is taken from Dr. Forrest Churches' latest book, The American Creed. Church was the keynote speaker last January at Convocation in Bangor, and he mentioned that the talk he was giving that morning came from his notes on his upcoming book, The American Creed. I was sitting next to Mark Worth, Unitarian minister in Ellsworth, and we were both feverishly taking notes until I stopped and poked Mark and said, "Hey, let's just wait until the book comes out!!"
The book is now out in hardcover (30% off at Amazon.com) and I would like to use his book to structure a theme for this winter around democracy, human rights and patriotism based upon American history and freedom of religion. Since this is our centennial year, I think it timely to take a look back at our own history here in Houlton as well as a look at key thinkers in American and Unitarian history. Especially in light of current events, with impending war in the Middle East, a stand-off in North Korea and widening anti-American sentiments globally, a focus upon our American heritage and its responsibilities seems a more than timely topic.
The American Creed according to Forrest Church is best expressed in the 1776 document penned by Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence. It voices the lofty values of freedom, equity and liberty for not only Americans, but for all peoples of the world. It was the first declaration of universal human rights and we are still trying to expand into its all-encompassing scope here at home and abroad with admittedly varying degrees of success. In 1944 the Swedish economist Gunnar Mydral described US history as "the gradual realization of the American Creed" and we have certainly taken halting and uneven steps up to this point. Yet, its influence is inspiring, far-reaching and effectual. The United Nations charter is modeled after the principled contents of the Declaration of Independence as is its universal declaration of human rights co-authored by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948.
And when I look at our own principles and purposes of the Unitarian Universalist Association, I see the re-stating of similar values, which for us is a religious under-taking. For Unitarians, this is as religious as many of us get!! Ours is a religion of human values and high ideals. This is the religious sense that Eisenhower was getting at in his comment about democracy. Democracy is the American Creed, which is not only American but universal, and as large as the human race itself.
Here is A. Powell Davies' definition of democracy. "Most simply stated, democracy is the social and political expression of the religious principle that all men are brothers and mankind a family; democracy is brotherhood: brotherhood unrestricted by nation, race or creed." (italics his) Powell goes on to say that "without its spiritual content, democracy as a system will be emptied of what gives it substance and will collapse." The soul of any government is entrusted to the integrity of its leadership to give it substance. The language of even a great document such as the Declaration of Independence can be co-opted by any generation of leaders to serve its own purposes. It is the citizens of a democratic nation who have the voice and the power to ensure the continued high standards of government.
Compassionate conservatism will not benefit the greatest number of people in this nation if it lacks a spiritual content and betrays the very values it claims to uphold.
The cause of freedom and liberty in the world will not ring true if our policies exploit or violate the human rights of any in lieu of American interests.
The vitality of our democratic society depends upon the spirit of its people.
That is you and that is me.
It is a civic spirit.
And in the tradition of our American founders and Unitarian thinkers, it is a religious spirit; albeit a religion that is not confined to any one creed or any one God or any one religion, but a noble aspiration that holds in common the highest ideals of humankind and the divine.
In closing, a quote by someone out of our own Unitarian past, Edward Everett Hale:
For your life and mine, today, and tomorrow, if we wish to maintain a republic, we must keep in mind our own part in living up to the ideas of the fathers. This is not because they were the ideas of the fathers, but because they are infinite ideas. They represent the eternities… they rest on absolute religion, the religion in which all men are one blood, every man is a son of God, every man bears his brother's burdens.
May we take these words to heart and consider them with sincerity.
GOD BLESS AMERICA AND ALL THE PEOPLES OF THIS WORLD.