The top flag above is the familiar “Betsy Ross” flag, adopted by Congress as the official American flag on June 14, 1777. On that day the Continental Congress resolved “That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes alternating red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” The other flag is a lesser known flag of the American Revolution. It was first displayed by George Washington on his fleet of six schooners in the fall of 1775, and was later adopted by the Massachusetts Navy (see americanrevwar.homestead.com/files/flags.htm). I first saw this flag in the leading credits in the HBO series on John Adams (starring Paul Giamatti – definitely worth watching!). The phrase “Appeal to Heaven” caught my attention and I believe its meaning relates closely to what our Founding Fathers meant by the free exercise of religion.
The tree on the flag symbolizes a large tree in Boston, known as the “Liberty Tree,” where the Sons of Liberty (a clandestine, intercolonial organization formed to oppose the Stamp Act) would meet to rally. The phrase was added to bring motivation and validation to their struggle against British rule. Believing that their cause was based on divine truth and justice, and sustained by the greatest power in the universe, gave them hope and courage in their battle against what was then the greatest military power in Western civilization, if not the world.
In order to justify their rebellion against the human authority they were under and against the political and social norms that defined their era, these men had to appeal to an authority higher than the laws and will of men, the authority of heaven. Such an appeal was made by Thomas Jefferson in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Self-evident truths are truths from “heaven,” meaning that they transcend time and space, and therefore supersede the reign of human laws and authorities. Such truths are revealed by God to all men (referred to by theologians as “general revelation”). Jefferson cites two of these truths in the text: that we share a common nature created equally by God and that God has granted us specific rights that cannot be taken from us by other people. These truths are the foundation of a free, democratic republic, and they are religious truth claims. Therefore, the actions of these rebels in the Revolutionary War was an exercise of religion. On the basis of these universal truths, the leaders of the Revolution challenged and prevailed over the authority of the king of England.
Indeed any movement of social or political revolution must make an “appeal to heaven” to justify their cause. If, as postmodern liberals would argue, there are no universal (or absolute) truths that transcend history, culture, and nations, but rather truth is socially constructed, contingent on time and space, then there is no higher court of appeal above the laws of the government or the norms of the culture. For the abolitionists of the 19th century, on what grounds was slavery to be opposed if the practice was sanctioned by law and socially acceptable (the economic benefits of slavery were enormous)? For the civil-rights activists of the 20th century, on what basis were blacks to be treated as equals if segregation was allowed by law and supported by the culture? These revolutions also had to “appeal to heaven” to find a foundation for change and they appealed to the same “self-evident” truths which are grounded in a biblical view of God and humanity.
Social and political revolutions cannot happen without the right to the “free exercise of religion.” Social and political change is of course by its very nature public. So to rise up against political power or to work to change social norms, one must exercise religion publicly. So called “freedom of worship,” or in other words the privatization of religious faith, robs us of true freedom of religion and ultimately of other freedoms. If we do not have the freedom to change government or culture by a public “appeal to heaven” then there is no limit on the power of government over our lives. When such restrictions are eliminated, tyranny ensues. This is why the freedom of religion is the “first freedom”: it is fundamental to all other freedoms.
In my next post on this topic, I will explore the nature of human rights and critique the view of other rights enumerated in this same speech.