By Bishop Edward J. Burns | A Bishop’s Perspective
This great country of ours was built and established by men and women of faith, determination, wisdom, and perseverance. As we celebrate the Fourth of July, we recognize that the men who signed the Declaration of Independence risked everything for freedom.
Through it all, their faith in God assisted them in their struggles and in their hopes. The men who signed the Declaration of Independence had much more to lose than to gain. Most of them were wealthy. Recently I read that of the fifty six signers, all but two were married. Most of them were under fifty years of age. The family men each had an average of six children. They were all well-educated and community leaders. As a group they were confident and prosperous. But what they wanted most was freedom.
The signers understood the price of freedom was high: if they failed they would be put to death for treason. Yet they signed the Declaration of Independence. The hand of Stephen Hopkins, an elderly signer, shook as he held the quill pen. He said as he put the pen to the paper, “Gentlemen, my hand trembles, but my heart does not!”
In the document, God is mentioned in the beginning and in the end. Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration’s architect, used a phrase that I wish he would have elaborated upon a bit more – “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” In these truths are the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, all of which are endowed by the Creator. The Declaration of Independence was the way in which our new country was going to “secure these rights.” However, these rights are not always “self-evident” to everyone and it is vital that we understand these principles which make our country great.
The signers of the Declaration of Independence and our founding fathers depended on their faith in God to be successful. A great majority of the writings of the founding fathers contain quotations from the Bible. The familiar symbol of independence, the Liberty Bell, has part of Leviticus 25:10 described on it: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.
When challenged about opening a Congressional session with a prayer, Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying, “I’ve lived, sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth – that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, sir, in the sacred writings, that except the Lord build the house they labor in vain who build it.”
President John Adams, wrote in 1798: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” The entering president takes his oath of office with his right hand on the Holy Bible and concludes his file, “…so help me God.” Our Supreme Court begins each of its sessions with the phrase, “God save the United States and this honorable Court.” Each of the constitutions of all 50 states mention God. President Ronald Reagan once said, “If we ever forget that we are ‘One nation, under God,” then we will be one nation gone under.”
Faith in the Lord is not only seen in documents of our country, but also in the architecture. A mural in the rotunda in the U.S. Capitol building has the baptism of Pocahontas as well as Franciscans in procession. In the chambers of the House of Representatives, directly above the speaker’s chair is the inscription, “In God we Trust.” The marble reliefs surrounding that room, are historical lawmakers, including Pope Innocent III [who Francis receive the approval of his rule in Rome], Pope Gregory IX, and in the center, Moses – the supreme law giver. Moses is depicted at the Supreme Court building holding the Ten Commandments. Within Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol building there are statues of one Catholic nun and four Catholic priests: Mother Joseph of the state of Washington kneeling in prayer; [Franciscan] Father Junipero Serra of California holding a cross; Father Eusebio Kino, SJ (Arizona); Father Damien of Molokai (Hawaii) and Father Jacques Marquette, SJ (Wisconsin).
These sentiments of faith are written on paper and chiseled in stone, however, it bears fruit when this faith is imprinted on our hearts – In God we Trust.
• Edward J. Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska. He was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI and was installed on April 2, 2009. His next column will run July 18.