We live in a secular society with the most basic, most important political office being the one you hold and too often take for granted: citizenship. In the coming Sundays, I will try to address our collective ignorance on this all too important issue.
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-=[ A More Perfect Union... ]=-
Our Gospel is not, contrary to what your goober cousins from Texas are saying, the bible. Our testament is the Constitution. However, as with many Christians and the bible, most Americans are ignorant of the content and contexts, of this scared secular document... In fact, some would say that the American Testament -- the political Trinity of faith -- would be the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Every Fourth of July, we celebrate what we sometimes call “America’s Birthday.” But this is incorrect. The United States of America did not come into existence on July 4, 1776.What existed then were thirteen colonies of King George III who were at war with British troops on this continent. The fighting had begun a year before, but it was not until July 4, 1776, that the colonies declared their independence from Great Britain and gave their reasons for doing so.
What we celebrate every Fourth of July is the anniversary of the dissemination of the Declaration of Independence. It is a celebration, to be sure, but not of the United States of America as a single, sovereign nation, a federal republic.
The closing paragraph of the Declaration of Independence starts with the following words: “We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in general congress assembled... ”The representatives assembled in the Continental Congress at Philadelphia did not represent a single nation which could be called by the proper name, “The United States of America.” They represented thirteen self-governing states. They were united in that they were resolute to fight together for their independence, but they were united in no other way.
In 1783, seven years later, the thirteen colonies, now victorious as independent, autonomous states, entered into agreement with one another to remain loosely united in peace as they had been in war. The army that had successfully fought the war was called “the continental army,” not the army of the United States.
This loose union was grounded in the “Articles of Confederation.” These articles did not form a single nation. If you take the time, you will find the sub-heading reads, “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union Between the States... ” After which follows a listing of the names of the thirteen colonies in an order dictated by their geographical location from north to south.
Four years later in 1987, when the loose union seemed to be in danger of ceasing to be perpetual, representatives of state met once again in Philadelphia to form a more perfect union, one that had a better chance of becoming perpetual and also of ensuring peace on this continent.
The document framing and formulating that more perfect union was entitled “The Constitution of the United States of America.” It was properly called a “constitution” for it did two things that a constitution must do.
First, it did constitute a single, autonomous state, unlike the Articles of Confederation (think of the Articles as you would the Charter of the United Nations), which did no more than establish an alliance of separate states, each of which remained autonomous, as independent of the rest of the states as they were before becoming a member of the confederacy. Secondly, it established a government, outlined it purposes, limited its reach, created the different branches of government, and established the offices of each branch, detailing the separation of powers of each.
When we use the phrase “United States of America,” we are referring to a nation that is one of many sovereign states that comprise the United Nations. But in 1776, when the Declaration of Independence introduced those who signed the Declaration as “the representatives of the United States of America, in general congress assemble,” those same words -- “United States of America” -- had a different meaning.
What came into existence July 4, 1776, was not a new nation --like France or Germany. What came into existence was a new people who, through the Declaration, sought to justify in the eyes of the world the separation from the people of Great Britain and their power to assume equality.
Having won a war and then establishing the Articles of Confederation, the founders could then, four years later, attempt to form a more perfect union by drafting and adopting the Constitution of the United States, in the Preamble to which they refer to themselves as, “We the people of the United States... ”
The Declaration was, in the most profound sense, a preface to the Constitution. I don’t think I would be wrong in stating that the Declaration is an informal architectural blueprint for the government of the United States.
Understanding the relationship between the Declaration, Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address is key to an understanding of our government. To call these three documents “the American Testament” is to say that they are like the sacred scriptures of this nation.
From the first document, we obtain the nation’s basics of political faith. From the second, together with the preamble, articles and amendments, we come to an understanding of political faith in terms of the structure of our government, its aims, and goals. The third document gives us a full, rich confirmation of our faith of government of the people, by the people, and for the people -- the people who declared their independence, who formed a more perfect union, and who resolved that this union would not perish from the earth. We are not only the heirs of those people, we are those people, and today we are engaged in the process of this experiment in human governance.
Flag-waving, however sincere; public demonstrations, however well designed; and public speeches, however delivered, do not by themselves sufficiently celebrate this nation, its conception, and birth. As individual American citizens, our personal obligation is to understand, as well as possible, these three documents that comprise our American Testament -- words that should be revered though they are not in the strict sense Holy Scripture.