Allow, on this eve of U.S. Independence Day, just a very short reflection on what freedom owes to the Judeo-Christian tradition.
For a book-length, erudite, eminently readable and enjoyable discussion of this, please read The Theme Is Freedom by the late, great M. Stanton Evans. It well explains that only through the Judeo-Christian insistence on the worth of every individual, and on the grace of God, did the West develop the idea that individual men derive rights not from earthly rulers but from God — and that earthly rulers themselves ought subject themselves to God and to a recognition of the God-given rights of others.
I’ve paid homage to the ideas in Evans’ book a number of times. Evans explained how our faith heritage is the only one that emphasizes “the intrinsic worth of the individual, the respect that is owing to all human beings, the need to limit the compulsions that can be used by one person against another.”
And that tradition is quite evident in the Declaration we celebrate on Monday. We are entitled to rights not just by nature but by “nature’s God.” We know that “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Americans were “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions.” And they pledged lives, fortunes, and sacred honor only “with the firm reliance on the protection of divine providence.”
In the Constitution, which grew from the Revolution, whose guiding document was that Declaration, when it first came time to enumerate specific rights to be thereby safeguarded, the very first right so memorialized was the right to freely practice religion. Further back, when the colonies were founded, they were founded largely by people specifically looking to live and practice their faiths free of outside strictures.
The very first official governing document of a lasting colony, the Mayflower Compact began: “In the name of God, Amen.” The first substantive (as opposed to introductory) paragraph said that the undertaking of planting the colony was “for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith.” And, using language derived from the Bible, they wrote that in forming the colony, they did “in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine our selves together into a civil body politic.”
The “civil body politic” derived not from kings but from God, and was meant to serve God first, their king only second — a king, the document noted, who himself was “sovereign” only due to “the grace of God.”
These are our traditions. This is our history. We are a nation of individuals whose freedom derives from God’s grace. May we never let that understanding, and that commitment, fade away. Amen.