A defiant group of Englishmen and Scots-Irish who were tired of getting pushed around made a formal announcement 239 years ago today that they had had enough, that they were declaring independence from Great Britain and her grasping monarch, George III (to my British friends out there, by the way, no hard feelings – I think we’ve smoothed things over since, especially in the war begun a hundred and one years ago this summer, and even more so the in one that followed a few decades after). Here’s how that document, the Declaration of Independence, begins:
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
“The laws of nature and nature’s God”. Here’s an extraordinary thing: they were going above the head of the king, as it were, and appealing to God for justice. Likewise in the next paragraph:
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.
So, governments exist only by God’s leave, and their purpose is to protect the people’s God-given rights. The end result of this idea can only be a republic, and a republic was formally codified eleven years later in the U.S. Constitution, but this was to be a republic different from those that had gone before: while technically the sovereignty belonged to the people, the true Sovereign was God himself. And yet it was not a theocracy: the protection of individual freedoms demanded that the citizens individually be governed by God’s law in pursuit of their individual interest. That is what John Adams meant when he said (I won’t quote directly this time; if you’re familiar with this blog you’ve seen the quote) that the U.S. Constitution was fit only for a moral and religious people. In the absence of religious faith (particularly Christian faith), citizens without a sure moral compass make a people incapable of self-government.
We can see how true this is simply by looking around us. There have been several periods in American history referred to as the Great Awakenings, dramatic revivals of religious faith. In the past half century we seem (both in the U.S. and other Western nations) to be going through a Big Sleep, a dramatic decline in religious belief. At the same time we see an equally precipitous decline in morals, a rapid disintegration of the family, and a growing and ever more coercive state eager to step in and make more of our decisions for us. It’s worth pointing out that our growing weakness as a culture is also a major factor in the growing boldness of jihadists and others eager to complete our downfall. People unwilling or unable to govern themselves are incapable of directing the government of the state; the end result can only be tyranny.
The Declaration ends with a final invocation to the sovereignty of God. The document concludes:
We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states . . . And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.
I submit that unless we are equally willing to submit to the “Supreme Judge of the world”, and ready to pledge our “lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor”, we will find ourselves under the weight of a despotism heavier than anything George III could have imagined.