The Sunday closest to the Fourth of July was once a day when people went to church. Attendance would challenge Easter Sunday as the highest day of the year. Not so anymore. Most churches now find that the Fourth of July Sunday and Memorial Day Sunday are among their days of poorest attendance in the entire church year.
This dramatic change of religious interest in the festival of American Independence is partly a sign of the fact that most holidays have become a time for short vacations rather than the occasion to celebrate historic events or public virtues. Whereas we once commemorated civic and religious days with solemn rituals, patriotic addresses and sermons, and picnics that brought people together, we now use these days as chances to get away from public life and forget the beliefs, values, and practices that draw us together. One reason why Americans are losing a sense of shared values may be that the civic rituals that once fostered these values have been abandoned in favor of play days.
The loss of a religious factor in the Fourth of July is also a sign of the ambivalence that most Americans now feel concerning the relations of religious faith and public life. The religious right still tries to hold these two aspects of life together, but the larger percentage of Americans want to keep religion and politics carefully distanced from other.
These paragraphs are taken from a sermon I preached in 1999 when Independence Day fell on Sunday. It is based on Matthew 11:25-30, which on the surface hardly seems like the basis for discussing personal faith and public happiness. I include references to an essay on assisted suicide by Courtney S. Campbell (Oregon State University), a UN-sponsored conference on limiting population growth, a speech by Al Gore, and a book of prayers by Marian Wright Edelman (who will be addressing the General Assembly of the Christian Church in Nashville, July 13, 2011).
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