Leon Kass brings back a blast from the past by reminding us of a speech by one of America's most underrated presidents. His piece What Silent Cal Said About the Fourth of July appeared in Friday's WSJ:
Coolidge draws conclusions from his search into the sources. First, the Declaration is a great spiritual document. "Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man...are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions...Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish."
He also observes that the Declaration's principles are final, not to be discarded in the name of progress. To deny the truth of human equality, or inalienable rights, or government by consent is not to go forward but backward—away from self-government, from individual rights, from the belief in the equal dignity of every human being.
Coolidge's concluding remarks especially deserve our attention: "We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first...If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things which are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshipped."
Coolidge was no religious fanatic. He appreciated our constitutional strictures against religious establishment and religious tests for office, limitations crucial to religious freedom and toleration, also principles unique to the American founding. But he understood that free institutions and economic prosperity rest on cultural grounds, which in turn rest on religious foundations.
Like Tocqueville, who attributed America's strength to its unique fusion of the spirit of liberty and the spirit of religion, Coolidge is rightly concerned about what will happen to the sturdy tree of liberty should its cultural roots decay. It is a question worth some attention as we eat our barbecue and watch the fireworks.