This past week, the United States celebrated its Independence Day. Two-hundred and forty-three years ago, a ragtag group of colonialists did the unthinkable. Against all odds, they revolted against their sovereign.
Unlike other attempts at colonial rebellion at various times in European history, the new Americans took the surprising step of declaring to the nations what they were doing, why they were doing it, and how moral truth justified their actions. Such clarity was disabling to the superpowers of the day.
And so, on this July 4th weekend, it is worth asking: What were these founding principles? Where did the Founders of the United States find them?
Historically, Western civilization – and the uniquely American way of life that flows from it – was inspired and sustained by the earth-shattering convictions held and taught by the religious creeds of Jewish and Christian believers. The entire basis of the democratic republic of the United States relied upon the worldview of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Without this basis, Western and American culture would have no moral compass. The American Revolution would have been one more power struggle between a colony and its ruling nation with no universal significance.
This assertion only presses the issue: What are these Judeo-Christian and American beliefs?
Here are only three:
Personhood and Dignity: It was the belief that the All-Powerful God chooses to accompany and assist the human family along the journey of life that developed the concept of personhood and dignity. This was especially found in the Christian claim that God became a human being himself and so raised human nature to the heights of divinity.
As Etienne Gilson noted, the very notion of “person” is a singular contribution of the Christian faith to the world. It made all the difference in assertions of dignity and the respect owed to the individual by society and by government. In many respects, this is the beginning of our understanding of human rights, authority, checks and balances, and representative government.
Equality of All: Relying on notions of personhood and human dignity, religious belief can assert the equality of all people. Inequality is an observable fact in a fallen world, with people having discrepancies in intelligence, physical strength, finances, social influence, and the like.
It is only the core assertion of one, common Creator of all men and women that allows a society to reasonably argue for an equality among all people and to rightly expect fair treatment and equal protection under the law for all people regardless of any other lesser inequalities that life has given them.
Without belief in a Creator, equality becomes a relative term and subject to ideology. As Alan Keyes observes, an abandonment of the Creator leads to an assault on the vulnerable members of a society. It very quickly breeds a societal elitism.
Freedom and Self-Determination: Religious belief in human dignity and equality allows all people to know and exercise their freedom through self-governance and solidarity with God and their neighbors.
Unlike the pagan myths of old, which depict human beings as puppets and toys to unbalanced deities, the Judeo-Christian tradition reveals a good and gracious God, who has empowered his children – all of us – with the power to choose goodness, order our passions, develop our talents, serve those around us, and determine our destinies with the help of his grace.
This is a critical break from the nihilistic pathos and staunch determinism of the Greco-Roman world. It was exactly this point that was so emphasized by ancestral Western leaders and by the Founding Fathers of the United States.
In addition to the above beliefs, the list could continue and include the rationality of the world, the power of the present moment (accentuated by the linear notion of time in the Judeo-Christian tradition), the human family and multiculturalism (since all men and women are seen as children of God, we are no longer simply defined by our tribe or polis), and service to the vulnerable and suffering, who are seen as siblings under God and blessings (not curses or burdens) and as opportunities for the greater good in society.
If we want a healthy republic and if we want to see the United States flourish and prosper as it has throughout its history, then we must as a people – in both our customs and laws – guard and promote these religiously-inspired convictions. These are the foundation of the United States. They are what made the American Revolution so universal in significance and the United States so exceptional in its way of life.
These are the convictions that have molded and shaped us as a people for over two centuries. They are what we most seriously celebrate this Independence Day weekend.
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