By BISHOP ROBERT J. BAKER
This past July 4th we celebrated once again the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the event that paved the way for the founding of our great nation, the United States of America.
As our Pledge of Allegiance acknowledges, our country is “one nation, under God,” whose purpose is to establish “liberty and justice for all.”
I joined friends that 4th of July evening to watch the fireworks display over Charleston Harbor from our beautiful Waterfront Park. Thousands of people came out and lined both sides of the Cooper River to watch the fireworks array of color and sound.
Two hundred and twenty-five years after an event that has shaped the lives of millions of Americans through the years, we took time out as a nation on Independence Day to honor the country we dearly love. We also celebrated the great freedom we have as Americans to worship God, unimpeded, a freedom not enjoyed by all people throughout the world.
We live in a country that acknowledges the close connection between religion and life, while acknowledging also a separation between church and state. That separation does not imply, however, and was not meant to imply by our founding fathers, a separation between religion and state, between religion and public life.
Father Eugene Hemrick, in an interesting book published this year entitled One Nation Under God (Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2001), documents the widespread use of religious symbolism in the U.S. Capitol by artists and sculptors over the years, a reality which suggests the close tie those artisans and the government leaders who hired them see between religion and public life.
Father Hemrick points out that most tourists never see or even know about the chapel that exists in the U.S. Capitol and that prayer meetings involving senators and congressmen occur regularly throughout the Capitol building.
What surprised Father Hemrick most during his research on religious symbolism on Capitol Hill was the number of crucifixes found in the Capitol alone. For example, in a painting found in the Capitol Rotunda entitled The Discovery of the Mississippi, Hernando De Soto and his armies are seen standing on the banks of the river rejoicing, while on the far right in the painting priests can be seen planting a cross.
Close to the U.S. Capitol is the National Gallery of Art. Father Hemrick correctly notes that no church in this country contains as much religious art as our National Gallery of Art.
Moses is depicted on a frieze atop the Supreme Court Building and is portrayed in a bronze statue in the Library of Congress. He is sculptured on a medallion displayed in the House of Representatives. A bronze statue of St. Paul can be seen in the main Reading Room of the Library of Congress.
Among the statues of historical figures gracing the halls of the U.S. Capitol are Catholic priests Fathers Jacques Marquette, Eusebio Kino, Blessed Junipero Serra, and Blessed Damien de Veuster, and a religious sister, Mother Joseph, a zealous woman religious who labored in the Pacific Northwest.
Among the most beautiful rooms on the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol is the President’s Room, on the ceiling of which are four full-length portraits symbolizing the four principles upon which our country is built. And what might they be? They are liberty, legislation, executive authority, and not surprisingly religion.
Father Hemrick notes curiously that “as Religion looks down at us from the ceiling in the President’s Room, she is a reminder that we are a nation of people who believe in worship.”
If the artisans who adorned our U.S. Capitol buildings and the government leaders who commissioned them were not so squeamish about connecting religion and public life, why should we be?
The reality is, as Americans we are free to state our case for religious values just as much as other people living in a free society.
The fact that we hold back and are reticent can stem from various factors. One reason may be that we don’t know well American history and don’t understand well our Constitutional rights, or appreciate either. Another may be that we don’t know well or appreciate our own religious history and heritage as Catholics.
In this month of July we might welcome the opportunity to make connections with both our civil and religious roots and appreciate more fully the connections that exist between them.
We might then be led to speak out more forcefully, addressing those religious and moral values we believe should be respected by people of good will of all faiths in this “one nation, under God” whose purpose is to establish “liberty and justice for all.”
I recommend you pick up the wonderful book by Father Hemrick to get a broader picture of the many references to God found within a 12,000-yard radius of the U.S. Capitol.
With Father Hemrick we all can remark how truly blessed we are to live in a country “that not only respects God, but has chiseled that respect in stone, inscribed it on walls, pieced it together in mosaics, and painted it on canvases so that American generations will never forget their religious heritage.”
We also commend President Bush on giving tribute to a religious leader who never shied away from speaking about moral values that impacted public life, Cardinal John O’Connor, who was awarded posthumously the Congressional Gold Medal on July 10, for his great contributions to our country.
Cardinal O’Connor was a man who knew his civil and religious history well and knew how to connect religion and public life. He took advantage of many opportunities to be a faithful citizen.