The Fourth of July: Appreciating the American Experiment.

The experiment is 236 years old and counting. The official date of the Declaration of Independence is July 4, 1776, and so that is the time we celebrate, whether or not anything that really matters happened on that particular day. What matters is what the Declaration actually said, and the meaning that it gave to a war that was already over a year old.

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

Equality. Unalienable Rights. Life. Liberty. The Pursuit of Happiness. Self-government.

What made the experiment of the United States of America a radically new turn in the history of the world was not the invention of these ideas. On the contrary, all of them can be found in classic Christian political theology in one form or another, and many of them are even older than that. The founders, for their part, recognized these truths to be self-evident, grounded in natural law.

What made the United States unique was that for the first time in human history a government was established based on the recognition that securing these rights on behalf of human beings, regardless of their religion, nationality, or rank, was the basic purpose of government. The rights that government is established to protect and secure come from God and are not the prerogative of any particular individual, community, or faith. They belong to human beings, and they are unalienable.

What is often forgotten by so many people who want to claim the heritage of the United States for their own political agenda is that it was established neither as a Christian nation with an established orthodox church, nor as a bastion of atheism or even agnosticism. Rather, the logic of the Declaration of Independence presupposed the basic reality and authority of what it called “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Apart from this foundation the declaration falls apart.

If the rights and freedoms it espouses derive from Christianity they are not for all human beings. If liberty and equality are not ordained by God and grounded in nature then they are simply gifts that are gratuitously given by government and can just as legitimately be taken away. The Declaration of Independence amounts to a recognition that human beings are under the authority of the natural moral law that governs the universe, and that whatever use they make of government must measure up to that standard.

By all reasonable standards the experiment has been nothing less than a stunning success to a degree the founders could not possibly have imagined. To be sure, the nation has had its bumps and bruises. It nearly unraveled amid the brutally contentious politics of the 1790s, and it did fall apart for a time in the 1860s, only to be restored by brute force followed by national reconciliation. It has been marred by horrible denials of basic human rights, through various means of racism, conquest, and abortion. At times the courts of the land have forgotten their purpose and overridden not only the consent of the governed but the law of nature itself. At times the people have exercised self-government in ways more destructive of the ends of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness than conducive of them.

There are those on both the right and the left who scorn the ongoing project. I have heard professors and liberal graduate students wax eloquently about the evils and arrogance of America, suggesting that genuine liberty and equality require the abandonment of a project as marred as our own. I have heard pastors and conservative Christian culture warriors preach and complain that our government is tyrannical and that we no longer owe it our obedience. I am sorry that they are so disappointed, but I do not share their pessimism or their judgment.

On this fourth of July I want to point out that for all of our problems and inconsistencies as a nation, the basic reality of self-government continues. You may not like the laws that Congress passes but those who pass them are your representatives and are accountable to you. You may not think the Constitution has been properly interpreted in one way or another but the country remains one that is ultimately governed by written law and not by the whims of princes or generals. You may think your life is greatly constricted but you continue to enjoy basic freedoms of life, religion, association, movement, property, and more. You may not like the direction in which the country is headed, but you have the right to complain, and the right to try and persuade the rest of us to move in a different direction.

Not many people in the history of the world have enjoyed such liberty, equality, or even basic justice. I, for one, don’t want to take it for granted. And so to all of you who enjoy living in this great country, I wish you a Happy Independence Day.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 4, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Fourth of July: Appreciating the American Experiment..

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