The God Squad: The spiritual meaning of America

Rabbi Marc Gellman, Tribune Content Agency on

Of all the secular holidays of our culture, Thanksgiving is my favorite. It is about gratitude and gratitude is at the top of my list of moral virtues taught by God in the Bible to all of us. I also like Valentine’s Day which (I know!) has its roots in Christianity but, like Thanksgiving, it is about love and love is my second favorite moral virtue. I also like Halloween because it is about giving chocolate to kids, and I love both kids and chocolate right after gratitude and love.

However, Independence Day is way up on my list of favorite secular holidays. There is something about America that transcends normal national pride. America is a place but more than that America is an idea. That idea is that all of us are "endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights and that chief among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." In the minds and hearts of the founders of our country, those rights were from God and not from the state. In every other state, rights are bestowed upon the citizenry by the state and its leaders. This makes all the difference in our national consciousness. What the state has not given, the state cannot revoke. The genius of the Founders was that they were able to craft documents of independence that did not establish a theocracy and did not establish a secular state. Our country is a brilliant compromise. A state founded on religious principles that also guaranteed to every citizen the right to practice or reject any religion. This made America a unique experiment in world history, and we all are blessed by its creative and inspired wisdom of how best to encourage human flourishing. Beyond the hot dogs and fireworks, we must never forget what we are supposed to be celebrating on the Fourth of July.

I am thinking about the Statue of Liberty this year. I am not thinking about the beauty and power of the statue, but of the modest and populist eloquence of Emma Lazarus’ poem The New Colossus, inscribed at her base,

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand


A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command


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