In our opinion: The Fourth of July and religion

Published: Sunday, July 3 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

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As the nation celebrates its independence this weekend with the customary and appropriate festivities, it is important to pause a bit to ponder how, unlike virtually every nation on Earth, the United States was founded on ideas, not on a particular ethnic identity. Those ideas are succinctly described in the Declaration of Independence as the "self-evident" truths 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..."

That one phrase succinctly defines what matters to Americans. We believe in the rule of law, protected by enumerated unalienable rights that later were specified in the Constitution. We believe government should allow people to thrive through individual initiative by providing them safety and the freedom to find fulfillment as they pursue their own visions of happiness.

And most importantly, we believe that all these things come to humanity as entitlements from a divine creator. They cannot be revoked by any act of a human being. That part of our nation's founding, so essential to the essence of America, seems to be getting pushed aside lately by a host of "isms" that include relativism, secularism, atheism and even commercialism. And yet, without the idea that rights are derived from a higher power, they become merely good ideas, not inherent, inborn traits that are immune to negotiation.

This important truth also is being pushed aside by ignorance. The recent National Assessment of Education Progress test found that American schoolchildren are woefully deficient in knowledge about the nation's history. Only 20 percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth-graders and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrated the knowledge and analytical skills to be labeled as proficient, and just 1 percent displayed "superior performance." A basic level, by contrast, denotes only "partial mastery" — and this is where most American students score in history. (Sample questions can be found at www.nationsreportcard.gov.)

Fewer than a third of eighth-graders could identify an advantage American forces held over the British during the Revolutionary War, and only 2 percent of 12th-graders understood the meaning of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that ended public school segregation.

Without a knowledge of American history, people put themselves at the mercy of political spin or of trendy ideas about the role of religion in society.

The wording of our founding documents, as well as the record of how the Founders felt, makes it clear that the nation's greatness doesn't derive from the rights the people hold, but from the creator who endowed them with those rights.

That is an important truth to ponder this weekend, as are the potential consequences to the nation if it is not taught to each new generation.

The NBC television network recently edited out the words "under God" from a video montage that included schoolchildren reciting the Pledge of Allegiance before the final round of the U.S. Open Golf Championship. The decision to edit those words seemed to be a nod to those who find any mention of belief or devotion in the public square to be embarrassing or disconcerting.

The Founding Fathers, however, believed such discussion was so important they began the very first amendment of the Bill of Rights by saying, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." and then followed that with protections for free speech. They intended to protect the nation from passing laws favoring one religion over another, but there is no indication they wanted to remove the discussion of, or references to, religion in the public square.

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