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.(From the American Declaration of Independence)
The American Declaration of Independence is a far more radical document than our Constitution. Basically, it says at the very beginning of the document that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish a government which does not allow for the presence and fulfillment of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In other words, the legitimacy and existence of any nation are dependent on its provision and protection of these basic rights endowed by God. I would assume that if the country our Forefathers founded should cease to provide and protect these right, those same Forefathers would maintain that we the people have the right to radically alter or abolish that government.
Unlike our Constitution, our Declaration of Independence has no binding and legal authority. Perhaps it has moral authority, but no legal authority. But that moral authority is also limited when we consider its internal contradictions. For example, in the phrases “that all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” we must ask who was included among such “men.” Women? First Nations people? Slaves? Free blacks?
Women did not receive the right to vote until August of 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment of the Constitution. First Nations people were systematically slaughtered, were banished to reservations (a euphemistic term for concentration camps), and did not have the freedom to worship as they liked until President Carter secured them that right. Slaves were denied their basic humanity by owners, much of the church, and culture and were certainly denied their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. The era of segregation after the Civil War continued this denial of basic rights.
Such observations should force us to realize that the Declaration of Independence, while a radical document in its time, was provisional. It marked a beginning point in understanding the freedom we as humans have the right to maintain and demand. As Americans we’ve had a lot to learn since 1776 about the basic rights “endowed by the Creator.” And to be blunt, we still have a lot to learn. Women are still denied the equal opportunities of men. First Nations peoples are still suffering from neglect and intentional oppression. (Reservations are not a “problem” for those who decided the course of our society. They are a solution. They keep a whole people “out of the way” and “out of sight” because we don’t want to be reminded of how cruel and deceitful we have been to such noble people.) And the revival of blatant and unapologetic racism in our day demonstrates that we have learned very little about the devastating effects of slavery, the days of Jim Crowe, and the continuing legacy of America’s “original sin.” The United States has never fully repented from being a nation founded on the genocide/holocaust of First Nations peoples and the slavery of another race. And the insistence of many that those cruel actions and attitudes are in the past merely demonstrates how willful blindness and willful ignorance still plague our nation. And this willful blindness and ignorance is one of the factors poisoning our culture in 2019.
There are two quotes I would like to mention in this sermon.
When Benjamin Franklin walked out of the meeting in Philadelphia which decided what kind of government our new nation would have, he was asked what kind of nation we would be. His answer was, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for every other kind.”
Both of these quotes reveal a profound truth. A democracy can survive only as long as its people commit themselves to its vigilant protection and preservation. In other words, ultimately democratic governments depend on its citizens being ethical and faithful to the principles of such a precious and fragile experiment. So, my point is this: our survival long-term depends on how much we hold these freedoms and rights to be SELF-evident. Our Constitution has a host of checks and balances to allow for the continuation of our form of government. But those checks and balances ultimately are only as useful and good as the people who make up our nation. It is the “self” in self-evident which, in the final analysis, will decide the course and destiny of any democracy. In my seventy years of living, I have never witnessed such a degradation and lack of compassion of so many “selves” in our society.
Which brings us to Churchill’s quote. Democracy depends on the will, character, and decency of the majority of its citizens. Democracy means majority rule. For millennia the world has been ruled by kings, emperors, dictators, and demagogues. The idea of a democracy is a very recent development. Without a doubt, democracy is better than absolute monarchy, dictatorships, communism, plutocracy, and oligarchy. But the weakness of democracy is that in the final analysis, it depends on the character, intentions, and goodness of the majority. And so far in history, God has never had the luxury of a majority (moral, silent, or otherwise) committed to the peace and justice of the world. From a biblical perspective, majorities usually end up stoning the prophets and pursuing a happiness which denies others their own rights and opportunities.
Among too many of our citizens today, it is obvious that the great truths of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not “self-evident” in the sense that those truths should be possessed by all within our culture. If those truths are held valid for “all men” as our Declaration of Independence maintains, then how do we explain the presence and threat of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia? When the self becomes twisted and distorted by fear, violence, greed, and arrogance, it forgets that it is part of a whole and that the protection and rights of all are a necessary component for any noble democracy to survive. “Self-evident” in our Declaration of Independence does not mean selfishness. It refers to a recognition deep in the souls of people of a profound truth that seeks the welfare of the common good of all and not just a few.
Jesus said, ‘For what will it profit them (men and women) to gain the whole world and lose their soul? Indeed, what can they give for their self/soul/life.” (The Greek word for “soul” is best translated “self” or “life.”) The “self” is more important than anything else we possess. And the character of that self determines everything else about us. Jesus also said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” In other words, what we value is who we are. The truth of these teachings has a relevance not only in what we call the “religious realm.” Indeed, for followers of Christ, the Kingdom of God we enter and are committed to encompasses every area of life—familial, economic, political, communal, and personal. What is “self-evident” to us will depend on the orientation of that self, which in turn depends on what we value and how we see our fellow humans.
I still believe in democracy. However, I think we are facing a time when our democracy is under perhaps the greatest threat in our history. And the destiny of our nation will depend ultimately on how the values of goodness, justice, and compassion are held precious in all our hearts. The checks and balances of our Constitution can do only so much. As Benjamin Franklin observed 243 years ago, our form of government with its free and responsible society is ours only as long as we keep it—only as long as the truths of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all humans are truly “self-evident” among our citizens.