By John White
The Declaration of Independence says there are “self-evident truths” which provide the foundation for American government and society. The American experiment in self-government is predicated on them. However, public understanding of those truths is being lost; they are no longer self-evident to many Americans. They are fundamental principles on which America stands. This essay “unpacks” the meaning of the term “self-evident truths.” It identifies principles and ideas which are essential to understanding, defending and preserving the theory and practice of the American way of life. Here are those key ideas.
1. God is the author of our being and the moral authority for our laws. The Declaration of Independence refers to deity as “Nature’s God,” “Creator,” “Supreme Judge of the world” and “Divine Providence.” God, not government, is source of our freedom, sovereignty, rights, justice, human dignity and all else which creates a good society and a society which is good. We are “one Nation under God.”
2. We are made in the image and likeness of God, and by virtue of our spiritual nature, every human being is sacred, sovereign and inviolable. “All men are created equal and are endowed with certain unalienable rights.”
3. Freedom applies to all aspects of our existence, from the physical through the intellectual-emotional and the social-political to the spiritual. Liberty, a subset of freedom, refers to the social-political aspect of freedom.
4. Freedom is indivisible, so its various aspects are intimately related. Any diminishment of freedom in one aspect of our lives (such as economic, civil, religious or political) diminishes freedom in all other aspects.
5. God’s purpose in granting us freedom is to use it to show forth His glory in our entire existence. (Some Founders, such as John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, referred to America as the New Jerusalem and the New Israel. By that they meant a God-centered society whose will was to reflect heaven on earth. That way our pursuit of happiness would be permanently and abundantly fulfilled.)
6. Freedom carries an inherent responsibility to use it properly—i.e., morally and lawfully—to fulfill our obligation to our Creator. Freedom and responsibility are therefore intimately related; without responsibility, liberty becomes libertinism or immoral, destructive behavior. Freedom is never license to do as we please, but only as we ought.
7. Our political experiment in self-government is predicated on each citizen governing himself morally and taking personal responsibility for his or her words and deeds. The result is a godly society dedicated to glorifying our Creator. An immoral people is incapable of self-government. Any government it may set up will devalue honor, honesty and civility; it will legalize plundering, abridge rights and erode freedom. Patriots are therefore responsible, law-abiding members of society who uphold the principles of American government and honor our national heritage. They understand that freedom is not free and that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance and, sometimes, bloodshed.
The principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence provided the philosophical framework for the system of ordered liberty established by the Constitution. Patriots recognize and honor the Constitution as the supreme law of our land, requiring them to protect, defend and uphold it against all enemies, foreign or domestic.
Our Founders wisely separated church and state, but not God and state. We have a secular government but a religious society. Our government makes no religious test of civic officials but nevertheless requires moral behavior of them. However, the Creator whom we recognize as the fountainhead of American government and society is not the exclusive property of any denomination. The First Amendment prohibits any denomination from becoming the established, official religion of America; likewise it prohibits government from interfering with religious freedom and thereby allows full public expression of religion according to one’s conscience.
Of all political documents in history, only the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution offer a seamless theory and practice of enlightened government. At every level of human activity, from the physical through the mental to the spiritual, from the individual through local, state and federal government, they declare God as the divine basis of our existence.