Happy Fourth of July!
This week we celebrate a holiday that is very special to our country and remarkable upon the global stage. Inspired by the tyrannical acts of unfair taxation, among other abuses of the British government, the leaders of our nation claimed independence from this tyranny. The founders risked their lives and livelihoods to follow a dream of independence and the ability to have self-governance.
Some might say that the desire for independence started before the Europeans ever landed on the continent. In 1439, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the West (similar technologies had been found in the East, but those were by-and-large unknown to Westerners). With the ability to print more Bibles, the price came down sufficiently that people could afford their own and, in time, read them and realize that what the church had been telling them about their faith was wrong and, at times, abusive. By 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his thesis to the church, many people were ready for a revolution of faith, recognizing that what they had been told was not true.
At this same time Europeans found their way to the Americas, and as the Reformation allowed people to question their faith, it also allowed them to question their government. In Britain, the authorities were more than happy to let people seeking religious freedom go over to the colonies. In many ways, the colonists were left alone, not only enjoying their faith without persecution, but also self-governance. That is, until things changed. Historians have written books about all of the intricacies of this, but, in short, by the time the war started, people knew too much about the British government and no longer could accept its repressive actions.
For John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister and president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), the tyranny of the British government was not just financial but also spiritual. New laws were created to force a hierarchical governance of the churches, following the Episcopal model. That is a governance with bishops and individuals who could assert control over local congregations, something which we as Presbyterians do not believe in.
While the Declaration of Independence was not a religious movement, the religious concerns were present because whenever government restricts personal freedom, they also inevitably restrict religious freedom, as we saw with the British government at that time. This was why freedom was so very important to the reformers, and why it still is today.
Unfortunately, we are in a scary time where our freedom is being challenged, both in a religious and secular context. Unlike before the printing press was invented, we are in a time when there is so much information, the art of thinking and the openness to understanding have declined. Tyranny comes in many forms, but when you see it, you know it. As many philosophers have pointed out, wherever there is power, tyranny can happen, and whenever power is unchecked, tyranny will flourish. This is what happened in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, both in the church and the government. But it did not end with the Enlightenment. The biggest example, of course, is Nazi Germany, to which we have the Barmen Declaration (http://www.westpres-sj.org/barmen.html).
We need to remember, both as people of faith and Americans, what the Declaration of Independence stands for and to do our best to make sure that we do not become the tyrannical oppressors, but rather beacons of hope and freedom.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen