Renewing freedom’s foundation
Independence Day (July 4) is our annual chance to remember the Declaration of Independence. Family cookouts bring people together. Fireworks remind us of the war that secured our independence. But what do you do that remembers the Declaration itself?
Here is a modest proposal: read it. It’s not very long — only about the length of this column. It is 244 years old and largely about King George III, but it remains timeless and relevant to our government today.
It begins, “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…”
Notice from the outset that independence from Britain is not cast as a desire, or as willful belligerence against authority. They did not see it as a choice at all, but as a necessary duty. More than that, it is not a private matter. It involves whole societies. It became “necessary for one people,” the colonists, to act.
The concept of freedom found here is profoundly different from popular notions today. It is striking how far we have wandered from the understanding of freedom that the Declaration holds. Much of our public discourse today wraps itself in the flag of “freedom,” but fails to notice that there are two mutually exclusive understandings at work.
The framers of the Declaration saw clearly that there exists a principle transcending individual ideas and desires. It doesn’t belong to any one person. On the contrary, it lays a moral obligation on every individual.
In fact, this truth even transcends governments. Kings and nation-states do not have absolute sovereignty to do anything they like and institute any law that they can shove through congress (or through an activist court). All of us, together, are limited by an unchangeable and unchanging principle that Jefferson calls, “the Laws of Nature and [the laws] of Nature’s God.”
This is at the very foundation of freedom. It is written into the very first sentence of the Declaration. If this principle is lost, freedom itself is lost.
In recent decades, too many have forgotten this principle. In some quarters it has not only been forgotten but turned on its head. Those who are intent on a war against the laws of nature and nature’s God, speak of liberty as the unbounded choice of an isolated individual.
This perverse idea is even ensconced in a landmark opinion of the Supreme Court. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Anthony Kennedy wrote, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life…”
I beg to differ. Atomized individuals, attempting to create themselves, are not the heart of liberty. Rather, such individualism drives a stake through the heart of liberty. The rapid erosion of freedom and the ballooning of the regulatory state arise directly from the attempt to use the power of government to create rights and freedoms that are contrary to nature.
If a person claims the right to murder or steal, just laws prevent him from acting on such nonsense. Any laws designed to create such “rights” are both unjust and destructive of the legitimate rights of people around them.
A just and harmonious society requires each person to understand the true nature of human freedom and its proper bounds. Transgressing those boundaries does not make for a more advanced humanity. Rather, any claim to the power of a god unleashes demonic power.
Governments that understand the laws of nature do not try to change them. Just governments recognize that the realities of human life and the structure of the universe are the unalterable data for making just laws. The state does not create rights. It can only recognize what already exists.
Human freedom exists. It exists as a result of being human. Therefore, true freedom only exists as long as we remain within the boundaries of our common humanity.
The authors of the Declaration understood that any universal claim to human freedom came from a universal understanding of human nature. They understood that any attempt to redefine human existence would, necessarily crush human freedom.
What, then, are the natural boundaries of human existence? How shall we live together as human beings? Jefferson sketches that out in the next — and most famous — passage of the Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created…”
I know you were expecting to hear “created equal.” We’ll get to that soon enough. But the Declaration cannot be understood by glossing over the word, “created.” America is founded on a single, self-evident truth. We are all created.
Human beings are neither self-made, nor the products of randomness. Equality is a result of being created. If we are random conglomerations of cells, who is to say that some combinations are not superior to others? If each person is self-made, how could you deny the claim of some to have made themselves better?
In the middle of the 19th century, Darwinists began arguing that evolutionary randomness made some races better than others. In more recent decades, the philosophical winds have shifted. Now individuals who claim the ability to define reality for themselves believe themselves to be a superior version of humanity.
Both the random and the self-made way of denying “Nature’s God” lead to fundamental inequalities. The founders were not so deluded. They understood that equality depends on our createdness. This truth is so plain that it needs no defense, no detailed discussion. It is “self-evident.”
It is a sad fact that our createdness is not self-evident to everyone today. Truly that is a tragedy. The failure, here, is not a failure of theology, it is a failure of philosophy. The mention of “Nature’s God” in the Declaration was never a careless confusion of church and state. The signers of the Declaration were operating as philosophers, not theologians.
Recognition of a transcendent principle that applies to all people needs no special revelation. It can be discovered by anyone with common sense and the willingness to think it through. In fact, the modern claim that nature has no God is a denial of all evidence and the adoption of a religion in its own right.
Since the framers of the Declaration were not burdened with this religion, they were free to assert that every creature necessarily implies a Creator. It is this Creator who is the author and source of human equality.
Thus, Jefferson continues, “they [human beings] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” “Unalienable,” means that they cannot be separated from a person. These rights are as much a part of your humanity as is your body, your soul, your DNA and your personality.
These are not created by governments. They are created by God. Only after Jefferson has taken us to this observation does he begin to talk about the government. The government is there to secure the rights that all people have by nature.
Nature’s God comes first. Human beings are his direct creations — together with their bodies, souls and unalienable rights. Government comes last. It is duty-bound both to recognize and to uphold humanity’s unalienable rights.
This Independence Day, let us all renew our resolve to live together by these self-evident truths.
Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at JLa[email protected]. Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.