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It has often been said that America was founded upon an idea. The country was not formed mainly for power or privilege but in adherence to a set of principles. Granted, these ideals have been, at various times in our history, less than ideally maintained. But the ideals remain. The idea persists.

If one sentence captures the quintessential idea of America, surely it the famous assertion contained in the Declaration of Independence: “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.” Almost every word of this remarkable sentence, 236 years old today, is pregnant with meaning and strikingly relevant.

The United States of America began with the conviction that a nation should be founded upon truth. Not simply values or preferences, but upon truths. Self-evident truths that were true, are true, and will remain true no matter the time, the place, or the culture.

And central among these truths is the belief that all men are created equal. No one possesses more intrinsic worth for being born rich or poor, male or female, artisan or aristocracy. Of course, this truth, as much as any, unmasks our history of hypocrisy, for 3/5 of a person is an eternity from equality. But truth is still true. We all come into the world with the same rights and the same dignity–whether “gated community” in the world’s estimation or “trailer trash.”

These unalienable rights, we must note, are not granted by the Declaration of Independence. Our rights do not depend upon government for their existence. They are not owing to the largesse of the state or the beneficence of any institution. The rights of man are the gifts of God. The Creator endows; the state exists to protect. These unalienable rights can be suppressed or denied. But they cannot be annulled. We possess them–no matter what kings or parliaments say or presidents and congress decree–by virtue of being created in the image of our Creator.

And what are these rights? The Declaration mentions three: Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Obviously, these rights are not untethered from all other considerations. Life should not be lived in a way that means death for others. Our pursuit of happiness should not make others miserable. The Declaration is not calling for anarchy. It believes in government, good limited government rightly construed and properly constrained. But the rights enumerated here are still surprisingly radical. No matter how young, how old, how tiny, how in utero, or how ill, every person deserves a chance at life. Every one deserves a chance at self-governing. Everyone has the right to pursue his self-interest. There’s a reason the Founding Fathers did not wax eloquent about safety and security. It’s because they believed freedom and liberty to be better ideals, loftier goals, and more conducive to the common good.

I understand the dangers of an unthinking “God and country” mentality, let alone a gospel-less civil religion. But I also think love of country–like love of family or love of work–is a proximate good. Patriotism is not beneath the Christian, even for citizens of a superpower.

So on this Independence Day I’m thankful most of all for the cross of Christ and the freedom we have from the world, the flesh, and the devil. But I’m also thankful for the United States and the freedoms we enjoy. I’m thankful for the big drops of biblical truth which seeped into the blood stream of Thomas Jefferson. I’m thankful for our imperfect ideals. I’m thankful for God-given rights and hard-fought liberty. I’m thankful for the idea of America.

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16 thoughts on “The Idea of America”

  1. Bernard says:

    I’m also thankful for the idea of America. And I think you’re absolutely right to commend patriotism. Also appreciate the acknowledgement of past hypocrisy. But I think your patriotism might have clouded your judgement of Jefferson’s assertion. The ‘pursuit of happiness’? In what sense is that commendable from the Christian perspective? Man exists to glorify God. You say ‘Every one deserves a chance at self-governing. Everyone has the right to pursue his self-interest.’ I can’t believe you’ve written those two sentences! Surely each of those sentences is a definition of sin? Jefferson veered right off track with the ‘pursuit of happiness’ – his own personal life testifies to the fatal nature of that pursuit. To defend that phrase is to put patriotism above Christianity.

  2. Bernard says:

    PS love the blog read it every day.

  3. Nathan says:

    I love this post! Thank you for sharing your thoughts on a daily basis, but this one just nailed it for me!

  4. Laurette says:


    Man exists to glorify God AND enjoy Him forever. There is a profoundly close relationship between these two chief “ends” of man. In fact, the Westminster Catechism treats the two as a singular “chief end”. The pursuit of happiness IS, for the Christian, the pursuit of God’s glory. As C.S Lewis famously said:

    “Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”

    Lewis made a great argument in The Weight of Glory and Surprised by Joy for the role that our capacity for joy plays in drawing us to God. See also John Piper on Christian hedonism. It is in our best interest to desire God fervently, so if we – as Christians – follow our pursuit for self-interest, we should end up pursuing God’s glory. Which is exactly what we were made for, as you say.

  5. Bernard says:

    But Laurette that’s not what Jefferson meant and that’s not how he’s been understood. We can’t pretend that the Declaration is saying something that it’s not actually saying.

    Great quote from C.S. Lewis btw.

  6. donsands says:

    Good words Kevin. Thanks for saying them. They are spot on.

    God bless America with His mercy and truth.

    “Our fathers’ God to Thee,
    Author of liberty,
    To Thee we sing.
    Long may our land be bright,
    With freedom’s holy light,
    Protect us by Thy might,
    Great God our King.”-Samuel Francis Smith.

  7. Go America, it’s birthday! Go America!

  8. jeremy says:

    Kevin, I was disappointed by your 3/5 comment…

    I strongly suggest you dig deeper in your knowledge of american history.

    “despite the strenuous effort of many Founders to recognize in practice that “all men are created equal,” charges persist to the opposite. In fact, revisionists even claim that the Constitution demonstrates that the Founders considered one who was black to be only three-fifths of a person. This charge is yet another falsehood. The three-fifths clause was not a measurement of human worth; rather, it was an anti-slavery provision to limit the political power of slavery’s proponents. By including only three-fifths of the total number of slaves in the congressional calculations, Southern States were actually being denied additional pro-slavery representatives in Congress.”

  9. This is a wonderful post! Thank you.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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