As families grill up the burgers and light up the fireworks this Independence Day, let's pause to celebrate one true American invention: the world's first secular Constitution.
On July 4, 1776, as our founders declared independence from the monarchy of King George III of England, they began a great and noble experiment. That experiment was to provide freedom of thought to our citizens.
Until the concept of "We the People" was established, most of the world's rulers reigned hand-in-hand with priests and holy men. This unholy alliance allowed emperors and kings to claim a monopoly on religion, which they used forcefully to control their subjects. They made threats of eternal damnation to justify crusades and punished religious minorities through inquisitions.
In the 18th century, as America was breaking from the king (and church) of England, there was no major example of a society divorced from religion. Fortunately, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison — while far from perfect — were Enlightenment thinkers.
They adopted an aspirational document, striving for, "a more perfect union." The framers adopted the first Constitution not predicated on a divinity. The document's only references to religion are exclusionary, such as there shall be no religious test for public office.
In 1791, the First Amendment was ratified to ensure that no government official may use their office to promote their personal religion. The Constitution] "gives the president no particle of spiritual jurisdiction," wrote Alexander Hamilton.
"State and church will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together," added James Madison.
Despite this clear directive from our founders, many mainstream religious groups and politicians have continually promoted the myth that America was founded as a so-called "Judeo-Christian Nation."
This does not reflect the intention of our founders and it does not even reflect the demographics of our population. A major shift away from religion in the Millennial generation has led to nearly one-in-three Americans now identifying as having "no religion" according to Pew Research. This is 6 percentage points higher than it was five years ago, making secular Americans the largest single "religious denomination" in our country.
In fact, in Multnomah County, 48% of the population identifies as religiously unaffiliated, which is the second highest rate in the country according to research from the Public Religion Research Institute.
I'm proud to count myself as one of the more than 75 million secular Americans who are not religious. Furthermore, I'm proud to be a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which has been fighting to protect our "sacred" separation of church and state for more than four decades.
Since our nation declared its independence, persecuted minorities from across the world have risked everything to arrive under the warm glow of the Statue of Liberty and contribute to the American experiment. This has led to a nation of people with great diversity in race, class, ethnicity religion — and no religion as well.
This Independence Day weekend, let's pass the torch of secular values down to the next generation. Because there is no freedom of religion without a government that is free from religion.
Cheryl Kolbe is a retired Portland Community College manager, mother, grandmother and nature enthusiast.
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