Reflections on the Declaration of Independence, Part 2

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

On July 4, I began a series of reflections on the Declaration of Independence, or at least on the above section of that founding document. I have not been feeling very well the last few days, so I beg your pardon in being late in getting back to this. I will continue my reflection on the claims made by our founding fathers in this important document of American history.

On July 4 itself, I offered some reflections on the first two claims of the Declaration: first, that there is truth and that the truth can be known. This is implied, indeed more than implied, in the first words above, “We hold these truths to be self-evident …”; second, that all men are created equal.

So, on to the next claim the founding fathers made in their declaring independence from Great Britain: “that they [ie: those men who are all created equal] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, …” First and foremost, the founding fathers recognized the Creator has having a role in human history. This is not mere symbolism, or a bowing to the cultural or social religious expectations of the day. It is far more than that. It may not be that the signers of the Declaration were all practicing members of the Judeo-Christian tradition. There is certainly ample evidence that some were not. However, they were all, as men raised in Western civilization, steeped in the ethical and philosophical tradition of Judeo-Christianity. I doubt, as well, that there was among them a single atheist. Why is that important? It’s important because they claim that there are certain “unalienable” rights that are given by God, and not by men — whether in the form of kings, priests, presidents, legislators, parliamentarians or what have you. Unalienable rights, or those that belong to a person on the basis of his or her being a person, cannot be taken away by other persons, or even surrendered by the person who possesses them. Why? Because they are given to every person by his or her Creator. This is crucial, for if unalienable rights are given by governments, than governments can take them away.

What are these unalienable rights? The founding fathers don’t attempt to list all of them, but focus on three that are most relevant to their complaints against England and England’s king. “… that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The government, nor anyone else, cannot take away my right to life, nor can I surrender that right. This is central to the debate over abortion, capital punishment, and suicide and assisted suicide. But, for the sake of our limited discussion, the right to life is unalienable — no one can take it from me without his or her committing a grave wrong. Neither can I kill myself without committing a grave wrong. Why? Because my life is not my own. It was not given to me by anyone else, or even by me, but by God. All must answer to God in the matter of respect for his or her own life and the life of others.

Liberty, as well, is an unalienable rights. Neither the government, nor anyone else, has the authority to enslave you. Neither do you have the authority to enter willingly into a state of slavery. An important distinction is that liberty is not the freedom to do whatever you want, but the freedom to do whatever you ought. Liberty is the freedom from government or anyone else preventing you from living out your duties and responsibilities, and enjoying your legitimate needs and wants. It is not the freedom to reject your duties and responsibilities, or to enjoy your perceived needs and wants, especially at the expense of others.

Finally, the founding fathers list the pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right. What could this possibly mean? Happiness, after all, is a somewhat vague and subjective term, isn’t it? Yes, in our current culture it certainly is, and people are likely to think of many things that they would claim make them happy that aren’t good for them or aren’t legitimate needs or wants. Happiness, classically, is the achievement of meaning for one’s life. Having been created by God, our happiness is found, ultimately, in God. That isn’t to say that temporal happiness is bad. Just the opposite. It is to say that even temporal happiness is found in those things that point to our ultimate happiness. Now, in a secular society, many might define happiness as having nothing to do with God, and that is their right. But, happiness still points to the fulfillment of our greatest meaning. It certainly has nothing to do with self-destructive behaviors, even if some claim that such make them happy. The happiness the founding fathers addressed was far more profound, I think, than simply enjoying a pint at the pub with friends. It was pursuing ultimate meaning and purpose in life. For the believer, that ultimately brings us to God. But, even the pint at the pub with friends is a happiness that reflects, in some way, this ultimate joy found in God alone.

The founding fathers claimed that there is a Creator God, and that that Creator God is the source of our rights. As such, they cannot be taken away by others, or surrendered by one’s self. Their complaint against King George III was that he and his parliament were at the business of trying to subjugate their rights as persons who, after all, were created equal to the king and his English subjects.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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