The Fourth of July is a time for family and friends, hot dogs and hamburgers, firecrackers and bottle rockets. And for believers, it's an opportunity to examine the relationship between patriotism and faith.

"The Declaration of Independence issued from Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, included four separate references to God," wrote Ira Stoll for Time. "So amid all the fireworks and barbecue smoke this July 4, consider pausing for a moment to reflect on the one our founding fathers called the Creator."

Stoll highlighted how the "theology of the country's founding" is complicated in an age when the separation of church and state has become a core American value. But the Founding Fathers were a faithful group, using language like, "The laws of nature's God."

"Whatever your religious views, or lack of them, if you are an American, it's at least worth understanding the idea on which our nation was founded," Stoll wrote.

However, as Jonathan Merritt wrote for Religion News Service, patriotism today often takes the form of a celebration of American exceptionalism. And that celebration disorders Americans' relationship to God.

"The difference in believing America is exceptional and American exceptionalism is significant. Believing America is exceptional recognizes our blessings — like every good and perfect gift — come from God. … The latter assumes our nation has claimed favored status with God," Merritt wrote.

Merritt advises believers to use the holiday as an opportunity to give thanks for abundant blessings rather than to boast over American achievements. "Let's light fireworks, gather our friends and family, throw hot dogs on the grill. And most importantly, let's bow our heads in humble gratitude to the grace-giver."

Rather than join the debate over the appropriate religious response to the Fourth of July, Lacy Cooke encouraged readers to use the holiday to get to know neighbors of different faith traditions and denominations. Her column for On Faith explained that Independence Day gatherings are likely to include a wide variety of believers.

"How strongly a person believes in their faith impacts their spiritual story," Cooke wrote. "Will you be sitting next to a religious fanatic or a nominal supporter? That's up to you to discover."

And when the fireworks start, sit back and enjoy a spectacle that some consider a religious experience.

Theologian Frederick Buechner once wrote, "We all pray whether we think of it as praying or not. The odd silence we fall into when something very beautiful is happening, or something very good or very bad. The 'Ah-h-h-h!' that sometimes floats up out of us as out of a Fourth of July crowd when the skyrocket bursts over the water … these are all prayers in their way."

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