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Reflections on Independence Day

Reflections on Independence Day

4th of July. Family time, cookouts, fireworks, and…

Independence.

At least, it’s supposed to be about that.

I love my country. And I thank my Lord every day for the freedom I have by living here – particularly the freedom to teach my children my values, to raise them as I deem appropriate, and to live out my faith beliefs in all of my life.

Yet, today, on Independence Day, I am struck by just how far away we have moved, as a country, from the values upon which our country was founded – the values that give us our independence. The, yes, Christian values that secured our freedoms.

I’ve already lost some readers at this point, I know. And if it weren’t 4th of July, many of you would be trying to use cyber world to throw things at me right now.

Contrary to what many will probably label me, I am not a crazy, fundamentalist fanatic that believes our country should require baptism to be an American. And no, I certainly do not think that our Founding Fathers wanted a nation that would force people to be Christian, or any other religion – on the contrary, America was founded specifically so people could believe the way they choose. But I do believe that a whole generation of Americans has not been taught the truth about our nation’s beginnings, and are unaware of the Christian underpinnings that not only constituted the foundation of our country, but are necessary for its freedoms to stand. And I do believe that our Founding Fathers wanted its citizens to choose Christian virtue, of their own accord, and saw that American cultural life had a role in encouraging them to do so, through education, public life and policy.

And, most importantly, I do believe that if we don’t get our underpinnings right, we will lose the things that we love about America.

The Founding Fathers’ Worldview

Our Founding Fathers espoused a thoroughly Christian understanding of the world. The majority were Christians, and the few that were not (including Benjamin Franklin), had a worldview that understood religion as indispensable to the health and liberty of the nation. This worldview is overwhelmingly evident in the Founders’ words, writings, and in early American cultural and political life. But it has been virtually erased from mainstream history textbooks, and few Americans ever read the Founders’ actual original documents. Doing so, however, reveals a picture of the Founders’ beliefs that is decidedly Judeo-Christian in nature.

This worldview functionally encompassed two major areas:

1) The understanding that an objective standard of morality, or virtue (which led to mankind having “rights”) was grounded in principles set forth by the Creator, and that adhering to these principles of virtue would benefit both individuals and society

2) The belief in the inherent sinful nature of mankind that leads to vices which are hurtful to both individuals and society

The first is reminiscent of Proverbs 21:21: “Whoever pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity and honor.” The second echoes Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.

The Connection Between Liberty, Religion, and Virtue

The Founding Fathers rightly understood that the freedom was dependent upon virtue within the people, and that virtue was dependent upon a belief in, and effort toward following, the principles of God. They lived by a distinctly Christian worldview, in which “right” and “wrong” was based on an objective morality given by the Creator, and they used this objective morality as the framework or foundation for American government.

The Declaration of Independence is the prime example of this worldview. The Declaration begins by addressing the need to assume the “separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them”. It further expounds: “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…”.[1]

The Founders understood that people have rights because they were created and given those rights be a Supreme Being higher than mankind or government – a being that, by virtue of having created the world and the people in it, defined the standards of life. It was the fact that human rights were endowed by God which ensured their fundamental nature. Government did not create rights – God did – so government could not take them away.

The Founders further understood that for government to not take God-given rights away, it had to be controlled by virtuous people. They recognized that it is religion, and an adherence to principles of nature and morality set forth by God (who created nature), that leads people to overcome their naturally sinful natures and pursue the virtues that benefit society (goodness, kindness, loyalty, love, honesty, responsibility, etc.). Without this internal character or virtue to keep their inherent selfishness in check, people would naturally exhibit vices that would be detrimental for society, and, as a result, would need to be controlled by outside forces.

Liberty, the Founding Fathers embraced, was therefore dependent upon virtue. However, the Founding Fathers recognized that for virtue to be effective, it had to be chosen. Just as Christ never forced people to believe, but simply called “Follow me”, the Founding Fathers worked to establish a nation which would encourage, but never force, persons to choose the path of character that would best benefit society for all. And it was religion which they acknowledged as the best means for this encouragement. They understood that it was the religious pursuit of God which helped people to choose God’s way, the way of virtue, over their own self-centered way.

Liberty-Virtue-Religion of the Founders

The Founding Fathers’ words are replete with this connection between freedom, virtue, and religion. Just a few examples:

 

  • “[I]t is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue”. – John Adams, 2nd President of US and Signer of Declaration of Independence”.[2]
  • “There are three points of doctrine the belief of which forms the foundation of all morality. The first is the existence of God; the second is the immortality of the human soul; and the third is a future state of rewards and punishments. Suppose it possible for a man to disbelieve either of these three articles of faith and that man will have no conscience, he will have no other law than that of the tiger or the shark. The laws of man may bind him in chains or may put him to death, but they never can make him wise, virtuous, or happy”[3]. – John Quincy Adams, 6th President of U.S.
  • “Our liberty depends on our education, our laws, and habits . . . it is founded on morals and religion, whose authority reigns in the heart, and on the influence all these produce on public opinion before that opinion governs rulers”[4].  – Fisher Ames, Framer of the First Amendment
  • “Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time; they therefore who are decrying the Christian religion, whose morality is so sublime & pure, [and] which denounces against the wicked eternal misery, and [which] insured to the good eternal happiness, are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free governments”.[5] – Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Signer of Declaration of Independence
  • “[O]nly a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” “I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?… I also believe that without [the Lord’s] concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better, than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages” [6]. – Benjamin Franklin, Signer of Declaration of Independence and Constitution
  • “The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments”.[7] – Benjamin Rush, Signer of Declaration of Independence
  • “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of man and citizens.”[8] – George Washington, 1st President of the U.S.

The same liberty-virtue-religion connection can be seen in virtually all aspects of public life from the period of America’s founding, including creeds from the first American universities, capitol building artwork and carvings, Supreme Court statements, legislative decisions, and even the “In God We Trust” motto on American money. Freedom, according to our Founding Fathers, was found in virtue, or character, as established by the moral principles of God.

Human Nature

The second part of the Founders’ Christian worldview related to the nature of mankind. The Founding Fathers’ worldview incorporated the Judeo-Christian understanding of the depravity, or sinfulness, of the human heart.  They recognized that, left to its own devices, humans naturally fall into self-centered patterns that are detrimental to society and can ultimately lead to oppression. Because of this, the Founders created a balance of powers to counteract that natural tendency of mankind toward selfishness and sin.

Although they understood the basis of freedom (by way of virtue) to be rooted in principles of God, they also knew that one of the main ways the sinfulness of the human heart could lead to oppression was through forced religion, as they had experienced in Britain. Consequently, they expressly established, in their new government, checks so that religion could never be used, out of the depravity of mankind, as a tool to revoke the freedoms given to mankind by God. In other words, the Framers created a government that would ensure freedom FOR religion – a government that would encourage citizens to freely pursue virtue through following God’s principles, while simultaneously being prevented from using religion to oppress freedom.

Our Understanding of Religion, Virtue, and Liberty Today

I cannot help, on this Independence Day, to contrast the Founding Fathers’ understanding of religion and virtue with our understanding of it today.

Far from seeing the culture as a means to encourage citizens’ pursuit of religious virtue, our culture now seeks to completely separate religion from public life, in favor of secularity. In contrast to the Framers’ understanding of morality rooted in fixed, transcendent truths given by God, America now believes in a subjective morality that changes according to situation and consequences. Religion is viewed as a threat to policy and to public life, and a secular worldview has largely replaced the Framers’ and Declaration’s “laws of nature and nature’s God”. This new secular worldview puts man, rather than God, as the measure of all things.

As a result, we are putting at risk the very freedom upon which our nation was founded.

 

  • The Framers understood “freedom”, and the “pursuit of happiness” to be the pursuit of virtue – the pursuit of goodness of character according to the guidelines for life set by the Creator. In contrast, our culture now believes “freedom” to mean the pursuit of personal pleasure, and freedom from any guidelines for life set by anyone.
  • The Framers saw liberty as the opportunity for responsibility to one’s fellow man and to one’s country. Our culture sees liberty as the opportunity to indulge personal desires without restriction from others.
  • The Framers embraced the role of policy and culture in encouraging people to pursue Judeo-Christian principles of virtue. Our culture increasingly prohibits any evidence of promotion of Judeo-Christian principles in public life – viewing it as a threat to individual freedom.
  • The Framers understood our Constitution to guarantee freedom for religion – the opportunity live out one’s faith in every part of life without fear of reprisal. Our culture understands freedom of religion to mean freedom from religion – where religious expression is increasingly banned from anywhere beyond a house of worship.

These changes put the America we celebrate on the 4th of July – the America created by the Founding Fathers – at risk.

Choosing Virtue to Have Freedom

It is the Framers’ Christian worldview, with its understanding of the natural selfish state of human nature (without God), and its belief in rights given by the Creator, that secure America’s freedom. The rights of mankind exist, and must be protected by government, because God (who is higher than mankind and government) gave them. Further, the belief in mankind’s natural tendency toward evil ensures that checks on human nature will be maintained, so that evil cannot run amok and turn into oppression.

The shift from a Judeo-Christian to a secular worldview effectively eliminates God as the giver of human rights. And once human rights become nothing more than simply a political entity, they no longer remain fundamental – they become mere political concepts at the whim of whomever has power at the time. What mankind confers, mankind (or government) can take away.

Our Founders understood this. That is why they created a nation grounded in Christian principles, with the understanding that a free nation was only one that chose, of its own accord, to follow the Creator’s guidelines for life, and why they incorporated balances of power to ensure that man’s natural tendency toward self could not (particularly through the use of religion) be utilized as a tool of force.

We are losing these principles. We are, instead, turning to an increasingly secular worldview in which our liberties are seen as pleasures rather than responsibilities. We are losing the Founders’ understanding of accountability to One greater than ourselves, and to His standards of how life, and society, best run, and instead are making rules that suit our own desires. We are replacing the pursuit of virtue with the pursuit of pleasure, and using “rights” as excuses to indulge ourselves rather than serve our fellow man.

As a result, we are also losing the very things that made America a country worth fighting to attain.

Our Founders had it right. Freedom is dependent upon virtue. Virtue cannot be forced; each individual must freely choose to pursue it. But it is the religious pursuit of God which best encourages people to freely choose the path of virtue over the path of selfishness and vice.

The less our culture encourages the pursuit of God’s virtue, the less we will enjoy the fruits of freedom. We as a culture must reject secularism and provide a culture that not only allows Christianity, but embraces it as indispensable for our country’s well-being.

Because, ultimately, the closer we get to God’s principles for life, the better we will all be able to experience “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”



[1] U.S. Government Archives. “Declaration of Independence”. The Charters of Freedom. Retrieved from http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html

[2] John Adams (1798, Oct. 11). Vol IX, p. 229. In, Adams, Charles Francis, Ed. (1854). The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co.:1854.

[3] John Quincy Adams (1850). Letters of John Quincy Adams to His Son on the Bible and Its Teachings. Auburn: James M. Alden. Pp. 22-23.

[4] Fisher Ames (1800). An Oration on the Sublime Virtues of General George Washington. Boston: Young & Minns. p. 23.

[5] In a letter from Charles Carroll to James McHenry (1800, Nov. 4). In Bernard C. Steiner (1907). The Life and Correspondence of James McHenry. Cleveland: The Burrows Brothers. p. 475.

[6] Benjamin Franklin (1787, Apr. 17) Vol. X, p. 297. In Jared Sparks, Ed. (1840). The Writings of Benjamin Franklin. Boston: Tappan, Whittemore and Mason, 1840.

[7] Benjamin Rush (1806). Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical. Philadelphia: Thomas and William Bradford. p. 8.

[8] George Washington, in his Farewell Address to the United States. (1796). Address of George Washington, President of the United States . . . Preparatory to His Declination Baltimore: George and Henry S. Keatinge. Pp. 22-23.

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