The splendor of the “Declaration of Independence” is shrouded at first glance in simplicity and sobriety. No extraneous words. No visceral rhetoric. Most notably, it’s ideology free, a sculpture of principle-based reasoning by statesmen who looked to God-given laws — Natural Law — as the surest reference point for a just social structure.
The document still shines today as a model of political theory. It was effective against tyranny in its moment and still speaks wisdom to the ills of contemporary culture. But this same document — signed by Christians and deists alike — is also a call to moderation to those who argue the name of God should be deleted from the public square and, most importantly, banned from the halls of government:
“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands 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”
Notice the importance the founding fathers give to presenting publicly a moral justification for their action. It is, they propose, all part of “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” to offer the world the “causes which impel them to separation.” Their case for independence is not based on military calculations regarding the probability of vanquishing a foe, but rather on self-evident truths concerning the nature and rights of man, as endowed by his Creator, and the origin and purpose of the State.
"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, That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."
Having laid out in plain terms the principles of proper governance, these founding fathers offer twenty-seven succinct grievances as proof of English tyranny. “To prove this,” they say, “let facts be submitted to a candid world.”
A candid world — doesn’t that sound refreshing? It’s a land where the average citizen can line up principles against facts and make a sound moral judgment based on the God-given rights that flow our common human nature. Tyranny, for example, is wrong not because the majority of people consider it to be evil, but because self-determination and representation are natural rights of every political community — and these rights are self-evident to all candid people (those who use well the God-given gift of human reason).
The signers of the Declaration of Independence make their points with both logic and elegance. They want the world to know that their extraordinary decision to break from England is a final recourse after a long history of failed diplomacy.
“In every stage of these oppressions, we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated petitions have been answered only be repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people."
Why such obsession with delineating their motives for separation? Who were they trying to convince? Why such concern about ethical principles? The signers of the Declaration of Independence are, once again, looking to God, “the Supreme Judge of the world,” for a moral stamp of approval.
“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 […]”
Such simplicity, sobriety, and succinctness in a political document is only possible when a nation’s principles are unyielding. Today they are shifting underneath us, at home and on the global level. The several hundred pages of legislative text in the “Compromise Immigration Reform” bill, eventually shelved by the Senate, is one clear example. How can senators agree upon just and realistic legislation regarding such a complicated issue when they refuse to define the terms of moral justification in the first place? The commonplace gridlock at the United Nations is equally demonstrative of the consequence of a moral vacuum. The member states find it impossible to agree upon and demand respect of basic human rights and responsibilities because they have stripped their political language of all relation to God and Natural Law. They now have no universal reference point for right and wrong.
This 4th of July week, we have many things to be grateful for — not the least of these being the wisdom and courage of our founding fathers to look beyond themselves, and their religious differences, and up to God for the truth about man and the just organization of human affairs.
God bless, Father Jonathan
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