Are “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” Christian?
In its most famous passage, America’s founding document asserts that “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.”
The words are stirring. They have inspired millions. But are they Christian?
In a word, yes.
Many pastors today are openly uncomfortable, not just with this passage but with independence itself (which they wrongly believe to violate Romans 13, as I recently discussed in World Magazine’s Weekend Feature). But they shouldn’t be, and this is why.
First, the Declaration expresses these rights as self-evident. Nearly all of the Founders were believers; many of them were pastors. They saw God’s law as written on all men’s hearts, and the proofs of His Word and His truthfulness written upon the whole of Creation. In their defining statement, they asserted these truths as foundational.
Second, the Declaration expresses these as rights. This bothers many Christians, who assert that we have no rights, only duties or responsibilities.
But this assertion is more pious-sounding than true. Paul certainly speaks of his own rights, both civilly and ecclesiastically, and on matters far less important than, say, life.
The Founders, like Paul, asserted negative rights, which is to say, those rights which prevent others from infringing upon yours (or you from infringing theirs). They believed in the dignity of man because nearly all of them believed him created in God’s image; and they defined man’s rights as the flip-side of God’s commandments (e.g., I have a right not to be murdered, I have a right not to be robbed, etc.).
By contrast, the Founders expressly rejected the left’s concept of so-called positive rights (e.g., the “right” to a job, or to internet access, or to an abortion). Such “rights” necessarily require that some other person give up their own rights, and in an undefined way, one that can only be bounded by covetousness and arbitrated by force.
The Declaration’s concept of rights is a deliberate expression of God’s commandments. The left’s “rights” are their institutionalized, systematic violation.
Third, in this same sentence, the Declaration states as self-evident that “all men are created equal.”Had the Founders been French, this would have been an expression of Enlightenment humanism.
But they were not French. They were American: Protestant Christians and heirs of the Glorious Revolution. They intended this phrase as a restatement of the doctrine that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free.” (And indeed, most of them were opposed to the continuation of slavery, though ending it was not within their power, and no country on Earth had yet done any such thing).
The Declaration deliberately enshrines into law the Gospel’s view of the Second Adam’s redeemed race.
Fourth, the Declaration asserts certain rights not merely as self-evident but as “unalienable”. This is a choice of words little understood today, but it matters a great deal. An inalienable right is one which no one may take from another. But an unalienable right is one so integral to the person that he may not rightly give it up himself.
This definition is a further assertion of our creation in the image of God, and indeed of our position as temples of the Holy Spirit: we may not, for instance, commit suicide, because life is part and parcel of our being, and may neither be taken nor abandoned apart from due process of law (which in the Anglo-American jurisprudential tradition is itself based not only on Biblical principle generally but on the hermeneutical approach exemplified by Paul in 1 Tim. 5:18).
Fifth, and likely most pertinent to the average pastor’s discomfort, the specific rights asserted by the Declaration (which the text makes clear to be a partial list) are themselves entirely Biblical and are intended to be so. This is a reasonably obvious point with regard to life. But modern ears sometimes balk at the other two, and they therefore bear some examination.
Liberty is an inherently Christian concept. Much ink might be spilled addressing the Biblical passages concerning this — many of which tend to be overlooked by well-meaning Christians discussing these topics — but it is likely more helpful to think of this topic in the way the Founders would have, in the negative.
The Founders fully grasped and embraced the doctrine of the Fall and of man’s depravity. They understood that the essence of man’s sin was pride, and its expression was covetousness and all that flows therefrom. They knew, better than all who came before them, that sin could not be restrained by force, because those employing that force were themselves sinners, and would use their position to impose and expand their own sins at everyone else’s expense.
As a result, they later designed the American Constitution, perhaps the high point of human thought thus far on the matter of governance, which deliberately set as many different interests against one another as possible, so that they would have to cooperate, rather than dictate, to govern.
Madison did not state that “if men were angels no government would be necessary” idly; indeed, he and his peers built the entire American system on the idea of fallenness. Like Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith, they correctly believed that if no man had sufficient power to impose his will on the rest, all men (or nearly all) would thus be constrained — “as if by an invisible hand” — to work constructively rather than destructively.
Thus liberty is necessitated rather than precluded by the Fall. Without it, violence and sin are increased by those sinners who have power over all the others, whereas with it, all must respect the limitations on violence, theft and other breaches which the Scripture requires when it commands that we “love our neighbors as ourselves.”
Nor is this liberty libertine, nor anarchic: it is that “ordered liberty” which was the sine qua non of the Founders’ thought, involving just enough government to restrain man’s wickedness, but not so much as to propagate yet more.
Likewise “the pursuit of happiness”. This phrase is often equated — even by well meaning conservatives — to Locke’s “property”. But the Continental Congress adopted Jefferson’s change with reason.
Locke spoke of this also, not in the Two Treatises (source of “life, liberty and property”) but in his Concerning Human Understanding, in which he wrote of pursuing happiness as the foundation of liberty. His conception of happiness derived clearly from the Greek concept of eudaemonia, encompassing not merely wealth, honor or pleasure, but virtue and excellence, courage, moderation, justice, a social happiness Aristotle summarized in Nicomachean Ethics when he said that “the happy man lives well and does well; for we have practically defined happiness as a sort of good life and good action.”
This is the intellectual foundation of Jefferson’s phrasing, but while the other Founders were also mindful of Locke and Aristotle, they tended to think within a more distinctively Christian framework. They understood that there are many callings in the body of Christ — some are heads, some are hearts, some are hands, some are feet — and that it was essential that each be free to pursue that to which God had uniquely called him.
This thought was born of an era in which serfdom still reigned, wherein men — not merely the black slave in South Carolina but the white Frenchman in Franche-Comté — were bound not only to the land but to the work assigned to them, often by birth or even by caste, for life. This idea of “the pursuit of happiness” was revolutionary in its essence yet Biblical to its core, and once unleashed led inexorably to the freeing of those who then remained unfree.
In short, these self-evident unalienable rights, endowed unto all men equally by the Triune Creator God, guaranteed that no man might take a life created in His image, that all men be free of the sinful oppression of modern-day Cains and Nimrods, and that each might pursue the calling God gave him to its fullest reasonable extent.
The Declaration is thus not merely an assertion of the covenant rights of the Americans against the covenant-breaking English King. It is also a confession and exaltation of the fundamental principles of God’s creation. And the Constitution which followed it is a brilliant effort at creating just so much government as is necessary while harnessing man’s sinfulness against his expression of it.
That modern pastors cannot devote much time to the study of the history of political and economic thought on top of learning Greek, Hebrew, exegesis and homiletics is not surprising. But it is certainly a shame. Indeed, these subjects — which at the time of the Revolution were actually termed “moral philosophy” — are inherently religious. Pastors and theologians need (and too often lack) the tools with which to speak to them, intelligently and boldly.
Pastors should not be uncomfortable with the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration is a masterfully constructed foundation for a Christian society: not a society run by clergy, mind you, but a civilization rooted in Christian thought and established for the flourishing of Christian practice.
Originally published on Rod Martin’s website.