The Fourth on the Fifth

In 1926, the United States celebrated Independence Day on Monday, July 5. Why? Was there a national disaster, a day of mourning, stock market problems? No, as in 2010, July 4 fell on a Sunday that year. So respected was the Sabbath that the nation waited until Monday to celebrate its 150th birthday.

Speaking in Philadelphia, President Calvin Coolidge’s remarks were loaded with spiritual references. He called Independence Hall “hallowed ground” and the Liberty Bell a “sacred relic.” The 30th president said these national treasures had become “consecrated” and were the framework of a “spiritual event.” He also said, “The world looks upon them . . . as it looks upon the Holy Land. . . .”

Was this a shallow political appeal to the nation’s sense of civil religion? Certainly not. The president considered the Fourth of July to be a day to celebrate the spiritual principles proclaimed in the document that launched the country. “In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document,” Coolidge said. “It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man—these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions.”

What about today? What would Coolidge think?

First, he would have been no fan of today’s progressives because he disapproved of “progress” defined as abandoning the Declaration’s principles. The taciturn leader said, “If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions.” Coolidge added, “Under a system of popular government there will always be those who will seek for political preferment by clamoring for reform. . . . There is far more danger of harm than there is hope of good in any radical changes.”

I think he would be concerned about the nation’s spiritual condition too. Although Coolidge recognized that European philosophers influenced the founding, he thought the nation’s pastors were a primary influence: “[W]hen we come to a contemplation of the immediate conception of the principles . . . which went into the Declaration of Independence we are not required to extend our search beyond our own shores. They are found in the texts, the sermons, and the writings of the early colonial clergy. . . . “These great truths were in the air that our people breathed.”

What about the air we breathe today? Although it may seem to be a meaningless indicator of our nation’s health, we just celebrated Independence Day on the Sabbath. Would Coolidge be concerned? After all, he and the nation waited until Monday to celebrate the country’s 150th birthday. “If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it,” Coolidge said. “We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy.”