As we prepare to celebrate our nation's birthday, I am reminded of a recent field trip I took with my daughter's kindergarten class to Fort McHenry on the Baltimore Harbor. Fort McHenry, now a national monument, brings to life the fight with the British during the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812 and is the place that inspired the writing of our national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner.
Growing up hundreds of miles from Fort McHenry I had read of this pivotal battle in classroom texts. I had heard the story of Francis Scott Key witnessing the horrific battle and his inspired lyrics as he watched the large American flag flying triumphantly above the fort the next day. It was one thing to read and hear the story, quite another to walk the grounds of Fort McHenry and to experience the raising of the American flag on that hallowed ground.
The story came to life because Fort McHenry is preserved and protected as a national monument and remains to tell the "living" story to all those who visit. Some things cannot be learned from a book. Our powerful experience at Ft. McHenry truly captured our minds and inspired our hearts.
Since 1906, U.S. Presidents have been designating national monuments, some of which have gone on to become our favorite national parks. In fact, nearly half of America's national parks were originally protected by the Antiquities Act, including the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon. At present, there are 117 national monuments in the U.S. — all which tell the glorious stories of our nation in a way that cannot be fully captured on paper or video.
That is what makes President Donald Trump's recent executive order to review the appropriateness of our national monuments so tragic.
National monuments are designated to protect existing federal land so that every American can enjoy these open spaces and benefit from the experience, whether it is a "take-your-breath-away" vista at Yosemite or a history lesson at Fort McHenry. In addition to historic, scientific or ecological worthiness, many of America's national monuments also serve as an opportunity to honor our country's diverse national mosaic and proud heritage.
For example, Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah not only preserves ecologically sensitive lands but also preserves cultural elements of religious significance. The 1.35 million acre monument contains an estimated 100,000 archaeological sites and natural wonders almost everywhere you look. The national monument designation was requested by a coalition of five nearby Native American tribes, who consider the two buttes at the center of the monument sacred. Though a strong majority of Utah residents support its protection, a vocal minority seeks to undo its status and open this sacred wilderness to private development.
Bears Ears is both a fine example of how we can preserve religious liberty and the stories of all Americans through monument designations and, now with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommending a reduction of the monument, a cautionary tale about the fragility of current protections on our public lands.
The War of 1812 has often been called the second war of independence from Britain. The founding of our nation was born out of the pursuit of liberty, including religious liberty, and this second war, fought several decades after our nation was founded, was a continuation of the fight for our nation's cornerstone of liberty.
I believe that today's fight to protect Bears Ears has its roots in that night in April 1814 in the fight over Baltimore Harbor. Back then the British failed to subdue Fort McHenry and the flag that remained flying throughout the British bombardment inspired Francis Scott Key to write the first verse of the Star Spangled Banner.
As a leader in the faith community I believe the ability to practice our religious beliefs is the flag that must always be there. It must always wave for America to remain the land of the free.
As we approach July 4 to celebrate our nation's independence, let us pray in this era of trifling with our national monuments and America's heritage and history, that Bears Ears National Monument remains standing after the current assault on public lands and inspires us with new and emerging songs of American liberty and justice for all.
Cassandra Carmichael (Cassandra@nrpe.org) is the executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, an alliance of independent faith groups across a broad spectrum of religions including Catholic, Evangelical, Protestant, and Jewish, responding to environmental challenges through faith-based actions.