The God Squad: The great seal of the United States of America
As all faithful readers of The God Squad know, I am a big fan of holidays. Holidays, though I'd rather call them Holy Days, remind us that there are two kinds of time: Secular time and sacred time. Secular time is the way we measure ordinary events. Every piece of secular time is equal. Every second is the same as every other second. Sacred time is different. Sacred times are set apart from the secular times in that they are special transformative moments that change us forever.
Some Holy Days are sectarian. Christmas and Easter and Passover and Ramadan and Diwali are all major religious holidays that are in America but transcend America. Christmas has definitely shaped American culture in many ways but it remains the celebration of the birth of Christ.
Some holidays are only holidays in the most superficial sense. Valentine’s Day and Halloween are the best of them but then there are many holidays that seem like they were invented by the Chamber of Commerce.
And then there are the holidays we celebrate as Americans that are actually examples of sacred time. Thanksgiving is a true sacred time because it is about gratitude and gratitude is a foundational virtue for any decent culture. Memorial Day is sacred time because it is about sacrifice and sacrifice is a foundational virtue for any decent culture.
And then there is Independence Day, which is approaching, and which invites us to celebrate America as a whole. In our deeply and bitterly divided culture, the Fourth of July compels us, particularly this year, to give thanks and prayers for our great experiment in freedom.
For those who feel most deeply that the American experiment in freedom has failed, I want to acknowledge and honor your anger. With all our wealth and will and all of our wisdom we absolutely should be doing more for the most vulnerable among us.
For those of you who feel that America still represents the best and brightest hope for a world in need of defense and aid and inspiration, I want to acknowledge your patriotism and love of country.
Let me suggest a way to bring the two sides in our culture wars together on this Independence Day, and on all the days after it. If you are angry at America, let go with your gripes and time them. Then, after say five minutes of griping, force yourself to speak out loudly for the same amount of time about all the things you still love about America.
The same advice for the other side. If you are a full-throated lover of the USA give yourself a measured amount of time to describe in detail what you love about America. Then give yourself the exact same amount of time to speak out about the ways America could be better, more equal, and more compassionate. I use this technique to counsel mourners and I call it spiritual balancing. We need to balance our awareness of what we lack with an awareness of what we still possess.
Take out a dollar bill. Look at it. Carefully. It shows both sides of the Great Seal of the United States of America, the national symbol of the United States that was designed by Charles Thomson. The Seal has three Latin mottoes on it, two on one side and one on the other:
Annuit coeptis, which means, “Providence has favored our undertaking,” is from Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid. It clearly establishes the belief that the agenda of America is not merely political but is an expression of God’s will to see politics used to secure God-given freedoms. I will never forget that during the Capitol riots of Jan. 6 I saw a person hanging from the balcony in the Senate chamber right over the verse annuit coeptis. I remember saying to myself, “I don’t think so.”
Novus ordo secularum is the second motto and it means, “A new order of the ages.” This is also from Virgil, in the fourth of his Bucolics. It is another proof that our founders considered the founding of the United States to be not merely the creation of a new state but rather the creation of a new order of human history.
The third motto is the most famous, E Pluribus Unum, “Out of many, one.” It has 13 letters just like the 13 stripes on the U.S. flag.
I think the three mottoes ought to be read as a single motto: If we try to make a single unity out of our plurality then God will bless our undertaking and we will create here in America a new order of the ages.
On this Fourth of July that is what I believe and that is what I pray.
Happy Independence Day!
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at email@example.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman. Also, the new God Squad podcast is now available.)
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