America is beset, as she often has been, with serious problems. These became clearer during our last presidential election season and since, with the Newtown shooting and fiscal cliff issue. How the great American experiment in self-government will endure to bless our children and grandchildren is a valid and pressing question — though it's not new.
Thankfully, many dedicated organizations and persons are working hard to resolve these vexing issues. Fantastic sums of money and time are expended in foundation grants, the legislative process, the media, classes and conferences. However, a fundamental and ancient part of historical American problem-solving is now almost entirely missing: a consistent petitioning of providence by "remember(ing) the Sabbath day, to keep it holy."
High above the floor of the Library of Congress' magnificent Main Reading Room stand eight symbolic statues representing key features of progressive civilization: Commerce, History, Art, Philosophy, Poetry, Law, Science and Religion. Above religion's figure, the Old Testament prophet Micah's famous exhortation is carved in gilt letters: "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" In following America's efforts to fix what is broken, it seems to me that all of us too easily push aside the last of Micah's three injunctions. Instead, we pace vainly back and forth amongst ourselves, never accessing the view and vantage of higher ground.
Over the past several years, in the course of an American religion pilot project, I've had the privilege of interviewing religious leaders and lay members at many places of faith. We have discussed some of the contradictions between what America, with 90 percent of her citizens believing in God, believes and how she behaves. Because of the contradiction between the fourth commandment and how American Sundays look, it was a natural topic to broach, no matter whether they were Christian, Muslim or Baha'i. (Eighty-five percent of American Christians and their denominations observe Sunday as their Sabbath.)
Several times, spiritual leaders mentioned to me after the interview that they needed to preach about the subject that weekend. I recall one person in a group explaining at length how for him and his family, keeping the Sabbath Day holy as our grandparents or great grandparents did was no longer feasible because of his children's involvement in youth sports.
The Puritans and other early American communities made profaning the Sabbath a crime, sending citizens to jail or to the stocks if someone did not attend church. It marked an egregious violation of our religious liberty, though that freedom had yet to be articulated in the Bill of Rights. Generally, these and other "blue laws" were attempts at ensuring that Americans remained religious. They included prohibitions against most businesses being open on Sundays. Since these laws have now been mostly thrown aside, we are more free than ever before to treat all days in the week similarly. Perhaps we do so in overwhelming numbers without giving too much thought to what Moses said God expected of us.
At our country's founding, "Appeal to Heaven" flags rallied the colonists as they walked from the treacherous and treasonous road of separation from England, and into our exceptional constitutional democracy. Perhaps more than in any other time in our history, we could use that sentiment — those blessings of heaven — more than we now enjoy them.
Chris Stevenson is the founder and director of America's Quilt of Faith, an organization that promotes the importance of faith in the theory of self-government.