It was on a Fourth of July that I arrived in America. I did not understand why all the shops were closed. When I inquired, I was told that everyone was out having picnics or barbecues and setting off fireworks.
It was later that I learned that this was the day that commemorated America’s declaration of independence from England. I was further surprised when September arrived and there was a holiday for Labor Day and even more confused when, on a Thursday in November, I was invited to a dinner where turkey was served and there was another holiday.
I thought that they were celebrating an early Christmas and wondered whether the real Christmas would be celebrated in my new country. I was so grateful to learn that it would be.
Having grown up in Ireland, all of our holidays were religious ones: Epiphany, St. Patrick’s, the feasts of Corpus Christi and the Ascension, the feast of St. Peter and Paul, the Assumption of Mary into heaven, feast of the Immaculate Conception. Banks were closed on these days as people attended Mass and celebrated with their families.
In England, everything was closed for Easter weekend, from Good Friday to Tuesday. Easter Monday was the traditional day for weddings, after the long period of Lent. Whit Monday was observed on the day after Pentecost Sunday, which commemorates the Holy Spirit’s descent on Jesus’ disciples. In France, Italy and Germany, Christian religious feasts are celebrated with enthusiasm.
Religion and politics went hand in hand throughout most of history. To be a citizen of a country, one had to adhere to its official religion. Hence many early Christians were put to death for not taking an oath of allegiance to the Roman Emperor.
English Catholics were executed for not going along with the newly established Church of England as the official religion under Queen Elizabeth in the 16th century. John Calvin, who thought to reform the Christian church, created a theocracy in Geneva in 1536. In 1895 The city council watched over the morals of the community and could summon anyone who seemed out of line to appear before them. Such people were executed if they did not reform.
Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, Jews who clung to their religion could not be citizens. They were “foreigners” who lived under the protection of the king of the country, which meant they were vulnerable to his whims. The idea of Jews being given citizenship happened gradually following the Age of Enlightenment, as various nations repealed discriminatory laws against them.
Many, however, faced oppressive regimes under the Russian Empire, and anti-Semitism seethed under the surface. Theodor Hershel, an Austrian-Hungarian Jew, formed the World Zionist Organization in 1895 and promoted Jewish migration to Palestine in an effort to form a Jewish state.
Jews had been expelled from this land by the Romans in 135 A.D., and for nearly 2,000 years had lived as aliens in other people’s countries. The state of Israel came into being after the horrors of the Holocaust in the second World War to redress this wrong.
In several countries in the world there is no distinction between religious and secular law. Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia and Morocco operate according to Islamic canonical law based on the teachings of the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. In these Islamic countries, Sharia law governs religious and secular duties, and penalties are meted out for lawbreaking.
It was Thomas Jefferson who wrote in 1777:
“Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow-citizens he has a natural right.
“Be it enacted by the General Assembly, that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, not shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, that that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
The separation of church and state was an American idea. Until I became a citizen, my husband used to read the Declaration of Independence to me every Fourth of July.
Happy Declaration Day!
Dr. Elizabeth McNamer is assistant professor and Zerek chair, religious thought, at Rocky Mountain College.
The Faith & Values column appears Saturdays in The Billings Gazette.
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