The ship rode upon the tempestuous, cold and mighty waves of the North Atlantic. Those aboard huddled in hope and expectation - and some fear. The Arbella had left England filled with brave Puritans who, new charter of freedom in their hands, would traverse the ocean to a new land, a new home, a new way of life. It would be the New World. It would be liberty. None of this would be easy. Many would die in the land known as New England.

It was 1630. The Arbella was one of 11 ships carrying more than a thousand Puritans to Massachusetts that year. The future governor, John Winthrop, was determined to unite and encourage the people.

In a sermon preached on the ship, Winthrop rallied his stalwart flock with a vision of purity and glory. They would be an example to the world of righteousness and courage. He took as his inspiration the words of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount. Jesus spoke of salt and light, of cities and lamps, and the need to let one’s light shine so that others would see it and believe.

“We shall be as a city upon a hill”, Winthrop told them, “the eyes of all people are upon us.” They must be, he said, “a model of Christian charity.” 

“Amen”, they answered, nodding their weary heads, their hearts aflame with the passion of freedom and opportunity.

America, the world’s greatest, noblest and most unique experiment in self-government, was born in that rugged ship tossed upon the icy waves nearly 400 years ago.  God has blessed America. We are, as Lincoln called us, “the almost chosen people.” God has guided and protected this country - in war and peace. He has led us in unparalleled triumph, prosperity and greatness.

Those who have sought to win our votes - in both parties - have often invoked John Winthrop’s image of “a shining city upon a hill.” Americans have embraced a kind of “civil religion” throughout our history. While not expressly evangelical, this broad public faith has united us in crisis, strengthened us in difficulty, comforted us in tragedy, and enabled us in community. This has been the great and unwavering American religious consensus; the virtue and strength of our democratic experience.

The founders of our republic recognized its importance. “Our Constitution”, remarked John Adams, “was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” In his farewell address to the nation, Washington called religion and morality “indispensable supports” for “political prosperity” and that morality could never be secured without religion. Jefferson said that liberty must always be seen - and defended - as the gift of God.

To the extent we have drifted from this ideal, we have descended into chaos and division. This American civil religion, reflecting patriotism and appreciating virtue and restraint, transcended the sectarianism of particular faiths. On the eve of the 1952 presidential election, which he lost, Adlai Stevenson observed that “while we vote as many, we pray as one.”

Is this broad center of faith and virtue holding? Or is it fraying and crumbling? These past few months haven’t been easy. America has taken it on the chin. The crises of our time have tested our resolve, our unity, our faith, our confidence and our hope. As a people. As a nation. These difficult days have tested our patriotism. Those who love this nation have been directly challenged by those who loathe the country, know nothing of its history or its heroes, and seek its overthrow, by violence if necessary. These groups and individuals resent American greatness, despise American patriotism, deny American exceptionalism and ridicule and distort our past American leaders who are not here to explain, defend or apologize. Many of these anti-American expressions are being fueled by Marxist ideologues, who are determined to achieve by secretly undermining from within what they could not defeat openly in the marketplace of ideas or by military conquest.

The United States is a flawed country. This is true. Its leaders, in one way or another, have all had feet of clay. Some of our most notable founders owned slaves. Yet they also gave us a government and a nation that has done more to advance equal justice under the law and a colorblind society than any nation in history. The attack on our historic monuments began with confederate generals. That lawless vandalism has grown to target Grant, Lincoln, Washington, Columbus, Jackson,  Theodore Roosevelt. Where this bitter antagonism will end is anyone’s guess. After all, one of the Left’s icons, FDR, refused to back an anti-lynching bill because he needed racist Southern Democrats in the Senate to pass his New Deal.

Some have suggested our national anthem be changed to John Lennon’s ode to nihilism, Imagine. Appropriate, perhaps, given its lyrics celebrate the fantasy of no heaven above us, only sky, and no hell below us.

“Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too.”

This Independence Day, let’s answer the wave of destructive violence and anti-American hatred with a united and rousing reaffirmation of American greatness.  Let’s celebrate that. Let’s also remember that America is not perfect, nor were her leaders. We recognize that America’s journey to justice and opportunity for all is not over. We have not yet reached that promised land. Nor is our agenda as a nation complete. We continue. We press on. We must do better. The “eyes of all people” are still upon us.

We hold certain truths to be self-evident but legislating them, attaining them and living them out is an imperfect and never-ending task. And so, let us commit ourselves to forming, not a perfect union, which is beyond our fallible ability, but “a more perfect” one.  Which is what our founders would be celebrating today, were they here to join us.

That City upon a Hill. By God’s grace, may it always shine bright, free and strong.