Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
July 4th is the day we commemorate the Continental Congress’s declaration of independence from the nation of Great Britain. People still debate over whether or not Britain’s offenses warranted colonial secession and war. Regardless, it was a bold, very risky move for the signers of the Declaration.
Looking back over 238 years, with America now an affluent global superpower, it’s hard for Americans to get a sense for just how unlikely (humanly speaking) it was that the 13 United States of America defeated Great Britain in a war and survived as an independent nation. This might be a good summer to read 1776 by David McCullough.
What was it that drove our national founders to seek independence? What was the Big Idea behind the United States? I think it is captured in the first sentence of paragraph two of the Declaration:
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.
It is among the greatest sentences ever written regarding what a civil government exists to preserve and protect. In the annals of history, it truly is a revolutionary statement: every human being has God-given rights to live, be free, and pursue their happiness.
So powerful is this statement that it has, over time and through blood, sweat, and tears, fueled (and is still fueling) the overcoming of various kinds of racial, gender, and economic injustices in the nation itself. May God grant that it helps fuel the overcoming of 41 years of legalized violation of the unalienable right to life of unborn men and women.
Where Did These Truths Come From?
We know that our democratic republican form of government has its origins in Athens and Rome and various other Western democratic experiments. But where did this vision for the dignity and freedom of all human beings come from? Jerusalem — by which I mean the Bible.
Yes, Greek philosophy was influential too. But the men who constructed the United States and crafted all of our founding documents and took such great personal risks (like committing capital treason) in order to launch a nation built on the foundations of these truths were indelibly shaped by the Bible, whether or not they personally believed its claims.
Creator: It was the Bible that gave our founders their general consensus of Judeo-Christian monotheism (Deuteronomy 6:4).
All Men: It was the Bible that gave them such a strong sense of the importance of the individual — every individual (Isaiah 45:23, Philippians 2:10).
Life: It was the Bible that taught them the sacredness of human life (Leviticus 24:17, Psalm 139:13–16).
Liberty: It was the Bible that ingrained in them deeply the emancipatory theme of “liberty for the captives” (Luke 4:18) that runs through the whole of redemptive history.
Pursuit of Happiness: And it was the Bible that taught them that the ultimate pursuit of an individual’s life is to find joy (Psalm 16:11, Psalm 37:4, Psalm 73:25–26, Matthew 13:44, John 10:10, John 15:11, Philippians 1:21, Philippians 3:8).
Thank God for the United States of America
The United States of America is not the kingdom of God. Christians are citizens of a “better country, that is a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16). The Declaration of Independence and its self-evident truths is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. The socio-political freedoms we enjoy don’t set us free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2). If we sing, “I’m proud to be an American,” while invoking God’s blessing on the USA, we must remember that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). God doesn’t like pride. And in view of some horrible national injustices and disgraces, we have cause to be humble.
But we should be deeply thankful to God for the United States, “for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). Even with its defects, sometimes tragic defects, we should never be so critical and cynical of our government that we lose sight of the historically unprecedented freedoms we enjoy, especially the freedom we have to worship according to our conscience.
I recently shared lunch with a Christian leader who lives in a country that is among the most difficult and dangerous in the world to be a Christian. What our brothers and sisters endure there is heartbreaking. Yes, God has allowed this governing authority to exist too for purposes we don’t understand, just like he allowed Nero’s oppressive and bloody regime when Paul wrote Romans 13. We must pray for our Christian family in hard countries and ask God to grant them some of the freedoms we enjoy and advocate for these freedoms wherever we can.
So today, as we remember the American Declaration of Independence, let us thank God for the miracle of a nation that holds dear the biblical values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And let us who live here thank God — while keeping America’s injustices and disgraces in view — that he has allowed us to live under a system of government designed to preserve and protect these inalienable rights. Imperfect as it is, it is among the very best ever constructed by sinful, selfish, proud, power-hungry human beings.
More on Independence Day:
Pilgrims and Patriots (Ask Pastor John)
Sign up to receive a daily digest of new articles from Desiring God.