Many Americans find themselves celebrating Independence Day with barbecues and fireworks, but there's another side of the holiday John F. Kennedy would have wanted us to honor, too.
In a speech on July 4, 1946, Kennedy, who was 29 years old and running for Congress in Massachusetts, addressed the crowd at Boston’s Independence Day celebration, saying, “The informing spirit of the American character has always been a deep religious sense. Throughout the years, down to the present, a devotion to fundamental religious principles has characterized American thought and action."
It's a sentiment that might not sit well for people who don't believe in God or identify with any religious tradition, especially given Kennedy's later remarks about atheism. But these "fundamental religious principles" to which Kennedy was referring weren't the ones you might hear conservative Christians champion today.
“Our government was founded on the essential religious idea of integrity of the individual," the future president continued. "It was this religious sense which inspired the authors of the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.’”
Kennedy's religious principles were the ones that informed the values of freedom and equality. And as the Catholic politician noted, they influenced the country's founders, too.
Whether or not the United States was established as a "Christian nation," as some evangelicals assert, religion was undeniably a topic of deep importance to the founding fathers.
By gaining independence from British rule, the colonists also freed themselves from governance by an imperial church. Establishing freedom of religion -- and not any organized prescription for religion -- became essential to the founders, who themselves were likely a mixture of Deists and Christians from wide ranging denominations. Given the restrictions placed on religious worship in many European countries at the time, it's no surprise they listed religious liberty first in their Bill of Rights.
But the founders were notably careful in their wording. Not once in the Constitution did they refer to "God," "Creator" or any aspect of Christianity, other than a brief mention of "the year of our Lord" -- another way of saying "A.D."
For them, as for JFK, religion was a vehicle for freedom, and not for oppression.