This week our nation celebrates the anniversary of the birth of our country. The holiday calls to mind a time in history when a faithful group of people intuitively knew every person created by God has a right to live in freedom and pursue means of attaining their potential without undue coercion of a government or a petty tyrant.
The beginning of the Declaration of Independence relies on a framework of religious principles, namely, there are laws to which we ought to acknowledge which are supra-human, meaning man does not create them but rather are discovered by him. Once found, they are immutable and become the foundation from which human laws derive. The greatest of these is the right and gift from God to exercise personal freedom.
The Declaration of Independence clearly states that the right of freedom is not bestowed by man, but given to him. Therefore, the least powerful of a society should have the same rights as the most powerful, a radical idea of government never previously attempted by any group of people in the history of humanity.
In formulating the framework for such an exercise in self-governance, the founders were astute enough to know that any form of government devoid of God’s eternal law would not have any justification or authority. By invoking God’s eternal law in the declaration, the founders were perceptive enough to know that the cause of freedom is a universal principle applicable to all.
The first paragraph of the declaration states, “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare causes which impel to the separation.” Notice that the founders specifically refer to the Laws of Nature directed and ordered by God. Those powerful words first written in the draft were not changed or altered in the final version. In other words, God gives humans the right to be free, an understanding consistent with our faith where all persons have been given the gift of freedom.
Thomas Jefferson continues, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (and women) 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.” In the first draft, the founders wrote, “these truths to be sacred and undeniable” instead of self-evident. One might conclude that the founding fathers went out of their way to replace religious words with more secular ones and weaken the argument that God’s law should be at the foundation of the country’s decree to be free of England’s oppression. The conclusion would be hasty because many years before, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that humans can recognize self-evident truths through natural law.
When Jefferson wrote the words of inalienable rights, he did so as a statesman and not a theologian. Nonetheless, his terms are theological as he acknowledges self-evident truths (or sacred and undeniable) that a person can come to know through his reason. In doing so, he has described the definition of natural law in one short phrase, although he may have yet to be consciously aware he did.
When humans abandon God and reject universal and objective truths, nothing is no longer discoverable, nothing can be transcendent, and nothing is sacred and honored; all is centered on subjective emotions and feelings. Unfortunately, our freedoms have devolved into might instead of right. The devolution is accelerated because the government is run by people who have completely denied natural law’s universal and objective truths. We now live in a culture where the basis of law has no grounding in anything but human whim.
The slide into relativism has been going on for some time, and those opposed to freedom have strenuously argued that civil traditions have little to do with religion and the practice of one’s faith. The philosophy behind the claim is a belief that religion is totally a private matter dealing only with the spiritual realm, while government and politics have authority over temporal issues. Hence, the warn out phrase is often envoked, “Separation between Church and State.” The founding fathers did not believe the new country should be without a divine foundation if it were to be free, as evidenced by the words of the Declaration of Independence.
We may need another Independence Day without tea in a harbor or men dying on a battlefield. For freedom to flourish, a desire to return to God’s universal precepts is necessary. Perhaps then, future generations can live out Jefferson’s dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.