They are among the most famous words every written in defense of individual liberty and the necessity of democratic government. The United States has used its ideas to define what American freedom should be. Nations seeking independence often used it as a model for their own statement to a candid world about why they deserved status as a sovereign nation rather than a colony or possession. Humans ranging from women and slaves in the United States to the diplomats who drafted the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights regarded its ideas as a kind of global political gospel.
Some readers probably can quote much of the following from memory:
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 abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its Foundations on such Principles and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to Them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The natural rights statement of the Declaration is Thomas Jefferson’s formula for human freedom based on simple but radical premises: All men (the inclusive term for humankind in the 18th century) are created equal, a state in which we all have equal rights to personal security, political freedom ,and the pursuit of economic opportunity. Governments secure these rights – they do not grant them, for only the Creator can give humanity what is naturally ours through creation. Humans also have a right to change or eliminate any government that does not secure those rights or fails to seek the consent of the governed. Like so many great ideas of the age, this statement has the logic of a Newtonian formula with the power of moral force.
Of course, then and now there is a sticking point, albeit for different reasons. Jefferson says we are created equal. Logically, creation indicates a creator – God. Then, traditionalists who argued for the divine right of kings would argue that Jefferson was upending The Almighty’s social order that placed monarchs at the top of the political food chain and the ruled in the fields where they belong. Today, in a world where the secularist is uncomfortable with any expression of deity in the political sphere and the multiculturalist asks “Whose god?” many say discussing God and the American Founding will pick a fight in some political and intellectual circles. Modern critics of the Declaration’s appeal to deity (specifically, the document has the phrases “nature’s God,” “the Supreme Judge of the world,” and “Divine Providence” as well as mention of a Creator) state that they are the standard utterances of Deism, a popular religious and moral movement of the times that denied the divinity of Christ and saw God as a being who set the universe in motion but did not intervene in human affairs.
Jefferson was hardly a traditional Christian. As disappointing as the facts might be to contemporary conservative evangelicals, his life is full of clear examples of how he spurned the orthodox Christianity of his family and friends in colonial Virginia. Henry Foote, author of The Religion of Thomas Jefferson, wrote that Jefferson’s “knowledge of science led him to reject all miracles, including the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus” and that he rejected the creeds of the Anglican Church in which he was raised by the time he was a teen-aged college student. Jefferson himself wrote, “(The teachings of Jesus] have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of schismatizing followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating and perverting the simple doctrines he taught.” Jefferson’s most famous solution to this “disfigurement” was the Jefferson Bible, his compilation of the moral teachings of Christ from the New Testament with all the miracles edited out by literally snipping selected sections of Scripture with a pair of scissors.
Facts like these could cause secularists to believe that history is on their side. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Although the religious sentiments of Jefferson might not give comfort to contemporary Christians, one fact remains clear: Jefferson, as well as the Continental Congress that reviewed his draft and approved the final version, made the moral conduct of government a vital component of consent-based government for a free people. Signed by both Deists and Christians, the Declaration patently states there is only one right way to govern people. Citizens must be respected as creations, God’s natural laws regarding human dignity and worth must be respected, and any government that fails this moral test is due for a change or bound for extinction.
Those ideas are supported by Jefferson’s own words. In a letter to his good friend John Adams, he wrote, “I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition … it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is … a fabricator of all things.” As he wrote in the Declaration, Jefferson elsewhere described all people having rightful claims to what one owns by birth or by one’s nature as a human being. It is broadly accepted to this day that it is morally right to keep one’s life, liberty, or opportunities for happiness safe and secure, wrong to lawlessly deny or strip a person of the same. Jefferson called those rights “unalienable” – non-transferable and inseparable. Why? Only God can give those rights. Only God can take them away by death. Jefferson’s God might have been a deity that he could not believe sent a Son to Earth, but God was to Jefferson a creator who guaranteed that the sons of men would live wisely and well if they lived by the rules of right and wrong clearly seen in the universal fabric of nature. Even in Jefferson’s time, this was not a new idea. One New England preacher of the 1760s explained things this way: “The law of nature (or those rules of behavior which the Nature God has given men … fit and necessary to the welfare of mankind) is the law and will of the God of nature, which all men are obliged to obey….The law of nature, which is the Constitution of the God of nature, is universally obliging. It varies not with men’s humors or interests, but is immutable as the relations of things.” Some things may change over time, but ignore the source of just government grounded in the unalienable, created rights of humankind and you might as well also try to ignore the laws of gravity.
Denying or avoiding Mr. Jefferson’s appeal to God is not only silly political correctness. It is a denial of a self-evident truth about the basis of American freedom. Whether one chooses atheism or religion, the basis of rights in the United States should perturb no one. We are a people who can possess life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness because millions of this nation’s citizens cling to the Declaration’s promises; millions continue to use it as the measure of whether the United States lives up to its promises. Those promises were given as our possession in the same way we were given individual characteristics and attributes as individuals, and those promises have done nothing but good. Deny Mr. Jefferson’s God of Creation and we are no longer a people defined by the Declaration of Independence but by whatever the times or the loudest voice say is best. That arbitrary source for a definition of human rights only goes by another name – tyranny. Like Thomas Jefferson, we would do well to remember not only what we are endowed with, but why understanding the source of our rights is the only thing that can truly preserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.