“ gave us liberty at the same time. The hand of force may destroy but cannot disjoin them.” So wrote Thomas Jefferson in his 1774 essay, A Summary View of the Rights of British America. I am reminded of Jefferson’s explicitly religious view of the natural rights of human beings after reading Gerard Van Der Leun’s essay, “Lincoln’s Land Without God.”
What is really at issue here on the human plane is whether or not this nation can endure once it is officially based on NOTHING [instead of God – DS]. I am of those Americans who say it can not. Myths matter to a person and to a nation. Remove them and they cease to exist. This is especially true when you are dealing with a nation like America which is not based on either blood or land, but on myth alone.
It’s been said that America is the only nation ever founded upon a idea, rather than ethnicity or or soil. That idea, drawn from the European Enlightenment, was simply and specifically what Jefferson said: that the rights of human beings spring not from consent by, or gift from, human authority, but from the creative acts of God. Life and liberty, said Jefferson, are inextricably interwoven because they spring from the same source, the God who creates both.
If you spend some time perusing the writings of Jefferson, it’s hard to avoid concluding that today he would be assailed as something of a religious nut, probably even one the much-reviled “religious right.” No matter that Jefferson was a secular deist, there is no escaping that his writings are permeated with God consciousness. Christ does not figure into his political writings, but God does, and frequently.
Patrick Henry wrote, “It can not be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I am not one of those who claims that America is a Christian nation; we are perhaps a Christianistic nation. Henry’s claim seems intolerant today because there is a great diversity of religions in America now. But Henry’s statement nonetheless reminds us that America’s founding sprang from a specific kind of religious faith, not just some feelings of a generic spirituality. Justice William O. Douglas wrote in a 1952 majority opinion of a Supreme Court case, “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”
What gave Jefferson and his fellow revolutionaries the right to be so, well, revolutionary? What gave them the right to start this country? Whence came their idea that the people should rule instead of a king or a parliament of nobles? How could they claim that the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was “unalienable,” meaning beyond the authority of a government either to grant or deny? Why did they talk about human rights to begin with and where do rights comes from?
Well, according to Thomas Jefferson and his fellows, the ultimate answer to all those questions was simple: God. However true it was that commercial interests were prominent in the minds of Jefferson, Washington, Franklin and all the rest, only a cynic of today’s postmodern age would say that the religious convictions of the Founders were not central to their determination to risk their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor for a single claim: the self-evident truth that all persons are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain rights that may not be rightfully denied them.
That was the whole justification for the American revolution: the rights of the people in America came from God, not from the British crown. When the Crown usurped them, it was the God-given right of the people of America to cast off the crown and determine their own mode of governance. That is what the Declaration of Independence says, and that is what the Founders did. Editorialist James Freeman wrote, “If you could sum up Jefferson’s political views in one sentence, you would say: He believed that God and reason allow people to rule themselves.” As the Declaration of Independence was being signed, Samuel Adams declared: “We have this day restored the Sovereign to Whom all men ought to be obedient. He reigns in heaven and from the rising to the setting of the sun, let His kingdom come.”
The source of human freedom is not an academic question nor is it merely one of Constitutional history. It is in fact the question of utmost importance in Iraq today, for example. The people there are freed from slavery under Saddam Hussein. At the moment, they are freed from something, but what they are freed to is not yet settled.
One of the genius things our Founders did was create a civil society in which enormous numbers of different Christian denominations and different religions find a home. Our history has seen times of sectarian strife, but it never descended to open combat as it has in, say, northern Ireland. A lot of Protestants were suspicious of whether Catholic John F. Kennedy would cleave to the Vatican rather than the Constitution, but their fears were unfounded. In 2000, an orthodox Jew, Joe Lieberman, was the vice presidential candidate; he ran for president in 2004 and no one worried whether he would have cleaved to Jerusalem rather than the Constitution.
The American ideas of freedom and liberty are drawn from religion. Jefferson was saying that human liberty is inherent in the creative acts of God in bringing forth humankind to begin with. Thanks to God we exist, and in God we live and move and breathe and have our being. Creation was not a static event, it is a dynamic process of bringing forth the image of God in humankind and the world at large. The creation stories in the book of Genesis show that the realms of the divine and creation overlap. God is powerful, but not exclusively so, as creation unfurls. Creation has power too; a certain degree of independence and freedom is built into creation by GodÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s very acts of creating.
In the original paradise, the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were given the run of the garden and meaningful work to do. They were free agents of their own will. Yet there were limits. God commanded them that they could eat the fruit of any tree except one.
Their freedom had its limits. When they crossed that limit, they were less free, and Genesis relates that as generations passed, humankind became steadily even less free. Eventually the story leads to Egypt, where the Hebrews found themselves in chattel slavery to Pharaoh. They had no freedom at all.
The twin images of slavery and freedom shape the entire theology of both the Jews and Christians. Never is God presented as an enslaver. Always God is a liberator. The central story of the Jews is that of Moses leading the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. At their start, slavery. At their ending, freedom. But curiously, neither the slavery nor the freedom is the high point of the story. The high point is what happened at Sinai. The high point, the defining moment, was when God gave them the Law.
The Law of Moses defines the limits of freedom in two ways. On the one hand, the law defined what was forbidden. On the other, it stated what was obligatory.
There is always a tension between the forbidden and the mandatory. But the Bible seems clear that freedom is found somewhere between the limits of what must not be done and what must be done. Without obligations there is no justice. Without prohibitions there is no community. When either individuals or societies attempt to ignore either prohibitions or obligations, bondage results. Slavery is easy, freedom is hard. Jefferson said that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. The reason is that the natural state of human beings is not freedom, but slavery.
The apostle Paul said that creation itself is in bondage to decay, an amazing statement for a pre-scientific man to make. Science today confirms that the universe is running down and cosmologists now seem convinced that the universe will keep expanding forever, until the time will come when energy states will be even, and nothing will ever change.
As for we men, women and children, we are born slaves to this decay. We cannot escape it, and anyone pushing 50 years as I am is more than well aware of it. At the end lies the grave. We know that. We are born slaves to death because our mortality looms over everything we do. It is the sole reason, really, that the US Congress passed and President Bush signed the biggest entitlement program ever, the Medicare prescription-drug program, to the tune of more than 400 billion dollars. If slavery to death is not really behind it, way down at the foundation, then tell me what is.
The book of Hebrews says that since we, God’s children, “have flesh and blood, [Christ] too shared in [our] humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death”“ that is, the devil”“ and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”
To some degree human mortality influences everything people do. Human customs and culture are shaped by the end of life in ways we cannot even uncover, to degrees we do not recognize. That is slavery to the fear of death.
We have usually thought of Jesus’s gift of life as some sort of afterlife, a survival of the soul after the body has died. This understanding of being freed from the fear of death is an essential one, but it is incomplete. Christ is concerned about far more of our lives than what happens after they end. Christ frees us not only from the fear of personal death but from our slavery to a death-shaped culture. With death overcome, the family of God is empowered to inaugurate a new order of living and a new kind of life.
Jesus explained in the Gospel of John (8:34-36), “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
Through Christ, we are freed from sin and from servitude to the things of this world which inhibit godly living: greed, jealousy, anger, resentment, racism, selfishness all the hundreds of things we put under the general label of sin. We are freed from sin and the fear of death.
So liberated, we should be able to live positively in ways not possible before. Justice, the right ordering of things in human affairs, is the result of this spiritual freedom. So the fuller Law of the Hebrews recognized this fact. Deuteronomy 10:12-13 and 17-18 says to the nation of Israel:
“ So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13and to keep the commandments of the LORD your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. 17For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, 18who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.”
Those are some of the divine obligations people have as they live in community. Yet our nation’s founding documents make no mention of the obligations and responsibilities, they seek to ensure only our rights. In fact, Jefferson wrote that the whole purpose of government is to secure the rights that God gave us. He ignored codifying the obligations God lays on us.
I think that is a good thing. I shudder to think what our civil life would be like if our Constitution required things of us rather than limited the power of government. Any list of obligations can be twisted into tyranny, whether by civil or religious authority. It is always too easy for the law, whether civil or religious, to cease being a guide and begin being a slave master.
In both our civil and religious life, we would do well to remember Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians, 1 Cor 10:23: “Everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible but not everything is constructive.” The absence of limits in America’s founding documents is not an oversight. The Founders expected the people to understand the limits of libertine anarchy on the one hand and political slavery on the other.
The Constitution guarantees our rights. It is our religion under the providence of the God of Moses and Jesus that secures our true liberty.
Various commentators of the American religious scene point out that America is becoming less and less religious. A lower percentage of Americans regularly attend church or synagogue than in past times. But the fact is that Americans are still just as religious as before, it’s just not Jewish or Christian religion they are practicing. Increasing numbers of people are turning to forms of spirituality that are private and personal, not public and social. These forms if religion are, at their base, selfish and self-centered. While this is certainly their right, I fear that over time the obligations of freedom will be ignored and the justice of our freedom will be degraded. Self-centered persons do not prosper, and neither do self-centered societies or nations. Paul warned the Galatian Christians (Gal 5:13-14):
13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence . . . For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Freedom is God’s will. Certain rights are God-given and cannot be rightfully denied by human authority. God’s gift of freedom carries the obligation to live godly lives under his guidance and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Our rights and our obligations reinforce one another, guard one another, preserve one another. Together they comprise our freedom.
[Via One Hand Clapping]