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Independence Day Not Americas Birthday

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Over the past few days I’ve seen a number of references to “America’s Birthday”. If a commercial advertiser wants to say this, fine (I guess). But I have spotted a couple of otherwise sober-minded writers using the “birthday” tag as well, and their ignorance is more disturbing.

July 4, 1776, was in no way the birthday of anything. It was the start of a long and savage struggle against the world’s most powerful empire at the time. If the United States can be said to have an actual birthday, that date should be June 21, 1788, when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution–the number specified in order for the Constitution to be in full and binding effect for all 13 former colonies. Those who prefer a winter birthday might want to go for Dec. 15, 1791, the date on which the required three-fourths of the states had ratified the Bill of Rights. (I know: much too close to Christmas, doesn’t have a chance.)

This “birthday” business matters because people who are utterly ignorant of their own history need to be slapped around a little. As well, people who seem to think that the British Empire’s response to the 1776 Declaration was “Right, then: you want to leave! Ta!!” are also unlikely to appreciate the very significant role of religion in fueling the rebellion and driving it to victory.

Oddly, no professional historian has managed to tell the story as well and as thoroughly as non-historian Kevin Phillips tells it in his magisterial 600-page tome, The Cousins Wars (1999). Phillips notes that the fiercest American revolutionaries by far were New England members of the Dissenting churches (Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists) whose forebears, in the preceding century, had battled the proto-Catholic Stuarts back in the Mother Country.

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In the English Civil War, these middle-class sectarians, mocked as “Roundheads,” routed the aristocratic Cavaliers. They were driven to resistance and even to regicide by their fear of episcopacy: they feared that their model of congregational governance would be outlawed and they would be forced to suffer under bishops and use prescribed Anglican forms and formulas still reeking of their popish provenance. Some who fought with Cromwell came back over from Massachusetts and Connecticut in order to do so; the very judges who condemned King Charles to death were sheltered in a cave in New Haven.

Not surprising then, that American revolutionary and future president John Adams was called “John the Roundhead” as a young lawyer. Much later, in 1786, Adams made a special pilgrimage to key English Civil War battlefields, referring to them as “holy ground.” Looking back at the American Revolution during that same period, Adams recalled that “if Parliament could tax us, they could establish the Church of England with all of its creeds, articles, tests, ceremonies, and titles, and prevent all other churches as conventicles and schism shops.”

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In other words, Adams and many more like him viewed the American Revolution as but a new chapter in an ongoing war not just with monarchy but with monarchy’s boon companion, the established church.

What’s most remarkable about the American Revolution is how a rebellion that had passionate religion at its heart was able, eventually, to give us total freedom of religion, including freedom from religion for those whom we might well regard as the ultimate Dissenters.

English royalists understood this dynamic very clearly. George III himself called the colonists’ rebellion a “Presbyterian War.” Edmund Burke told Parliament in 1775 that the people to worry about were the New England Protestants “of that kind which is most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion” with a religion amounting to “a refinement of the principle of resistance.”

What’s most remarkable about the American Revolution is how a rebellion that had passionate religion at its heart was able, eventually, to give us total freedom of religion, including freedom from religion for those whom we might well regard as the ultimate Dissenters.

Application to this year’s Independence Day commemoration: No, in July of 2014 we don’t face the urgent threat of an established church, but we do face an ongoing and brutal struggle with those who treat freedom of religion as the opportunity to impose their religious tenets on the rest of us–particularly as regards abortion, birth control, and homosexuality. We don’t face actual royal power in the form of Redcoat platoons, but we do face an ongoing and brutal struggle against our economic royalists–the possessors of great wealth who are able to purchase political outcomes that serve their interests and thereby suck the life out of a once-vibrant popular democracy.

Speaking as an incorrigible Roundhead, I insist that the revolutionary struggle is far from over and that indifference and/or indolence are unacceptable in these circumstances. To use Paine’s language, we don’t need the the kind of summer soldiers and sunshine patriots who will stuff themselves with “birthday” cake this weekend while remaining oblivious to the stakes in the present crisis.

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Peter Laarman

Republished from Religion Dispatches with the author's permission.