I’ve been reading an amazing document, the Declaration of Independence. In many ways it is more of a charter for the United States than the Constitution itself because it sets forth the principle of independence which stands at the heart of American ideals.
Without the Constitution, of course, the Declaration would be mere idealism, but without the Declaration the Constitution would be groundless and aimless.
Thomas Jefferson, principle author of the Declaration, sees independence grounded in three ways. First, human beings have certain basic rights which have been given them by the Creator. These are “unalienable” rights but they are not merely inherent in human nature. We are accountable to God, not only to each other, for guarding and respecting these rights. Our Creator is “the Supreme Judge of the world.”
Jefferson also sees that the sovereignty of God is essential to the success of the new nation, which will be dependent upon both the mutual fidelity of the people and the “Protection of Divine Providence.”
American scholars, immersed in an Enlightenment secularism, tend not to notice the language of faith. That is a disservice to Jefferson and the Founders as well as a distortion of history.
The second foundation of independence in Jefferson’s view is the conviction that legitimate government derives its power “from the consent of the governed.” This is such a common idea today that we seldom notice that is took a thousand years of English history to lead young America to such a declaration. Anglo Saxon Wessex moved in this direction, first under Alfred the Great. William the Conqueror and his Norman dynasty had no respect for the idea but the English barons under King John revived it when they forced the Magna Carta on King John in 1215. King Charles II in 1649 was beheaded, supposedly by the will of the people, but England quickly moved back to a strong monarchy.
By 1776 the American colonies had the benefit both of the centuries of English experience and of a very distant king. It had been 189 years since the founding of the Jamestown colony, nearly two centuries for the colonies to grow accustomed to the high degree of independence made necessary by the separation from the seat of government.
Jefferson’s document shows a third factor underlying the Founders’ way of thinking, the idea that “common sense,” as Thomas Paine had labeled it in January of 1776, held a certain authority of its own. Hence the opening line of the Declaration, “We hold these truths to be self-evident. . .”
A people without certain fundamental ideas held in common cannot long sustain unity. Our current age in America can be described as a floundering search for common sense, commonly held principles of union. Our dysfunctional Congress is evidence that we are not yet finding much success.
The old Greeks had a word for the basic ideas shared and taken for granted: stoicheia. St. Paul, writing to the Galatians, speaks of immature people as being enslaved to the “elemental principles” of the world and chides the Galatian Christians for turning back to these “weak and worthless” stoicheia. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that the words of God have their own basic elements.
In other words, those who are entrusted to our Lord must learn to think on the basis of God’s stoicheia, not the world’s. When Jefferson writes the Declaration of Independence, he speaks not necessarily as a Christian himself but he is clearly speaking on the basis of a godly conception of common sense. We have done ourselves great harm in America by losing that godly common sense.