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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. I’m thankful for the big drops of biblical truth which seeped into the blood stream of Thomas Jefferson and shaped our Founding Fathers. 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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27 thoughts on “These Self-Evident Truths”

  1. Joan says:

    Good Independence Day read.

  2. Paul Reed says:

    This post, like so often you see in the church, really confuses Biblical values with American values, and lot of Christians really don’t understand the difference. The American constitution is really big on Rights, while the Bible is really big on Obligations. In fact, it’s these “Rights” that has gotten us into this pickle of gay-marriage and abortion. “I have a right to marry who I want”. “I have a right to not stay pregnant if I don’t”. The Bible actually says people have an obligation to have children, so so-much for this idea of freedom of reproduction. You try finding in the Bible that people have a right to marry who they want. You believe you have the right to be tried by a jury of your peers? Get back to me when you find the verse that says that. We have this idea that Biblical society is this nostalgic version of the 1950s. Nowhere in the Old Testament (or New Testament) does God say, “You know, later on I want you to sail to the New World, get your three branches of government established, establish freedom of religion and speech, and just disregard all that stuff about judicial law, diet, ceremony I recommended earlier”.

  3. david carlson says:

    13Then they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Him in order to trap Him in a statement.14They came and said to Him, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?15“Shall we pay or shall we not pay?” But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, “Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to look at.”16They brought one. And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” And they said to Him, “Caesar’s.”17And Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were amazed at Him.

    Our problem is we have forgotten this instruction, and far to often christians now worship America. Flags in churches? Patriotic Bibles?

  4. Don Hartness says:

    I have to echo some of the other sentiments posted already. It would seem for the greater good that biblical truths seeped into the founding fathers DNA, helping to shape the foundation of this nation. Yet, the cornerstone was never based on Christ, and although this seemed wise at the time, in hindsight, we are reaping the results.

    Even the best intentions go awry in a sinful world. If Satan is one who “masquerades around as an angel of light”, and his disciples “have an appearance of godliness but deny its power”, then what better place to exercise “all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders” than America? The truth that lends credit to the counterfeit is already mixed into the DNA. All you need is a little yeast…

    Unless there is a “better” version coming, when I read of the delusion Paul speaks of in 2 Thess 2:11-12, I see a perfect example in America.

  5. Tim Jenkins says:

    … in response to all of the people talking about “worshiping rights”, there seems to be a huge fundamental misunderstanding. You see, Christians 300 years ago were so devoted to serving and protecting their family, their neighbor, and their brethren, and loving those who weren’t even alive yet, that they were actually willing to get angry and even die for the rights and freedom of OTHER people. Matter of fact, historically, that’s not an uncommon idea.

    Now, contrast that with the average American Christian today, who doesn’t even do much more than maybe grumble a little at the news that their tax dollars are financing Syrian rebels who openly behead Christians and rival Muslims. They won’t seriously stand up against that, or the oppression steadily mounting up to rule over our children and grandchildren.

    Only time will tell how far the American Church is willing to go to love others.

  6. Joan says:

    I fail to see how Pastor DeYoung confuses Biblical and American values in this post when he is quite clear from the beginning as to his intent and summarizes his position in the closing paragraph as to whom he gives preeminent thanks. To be unable or unwilling to celebrate the best ideals of our country on this day and to jump the shark as to another man’s alleged “confusion” is a sad commentary on the nitpicking nature of some within the church. Just seems really weird to me that these responses are what this post engendered.

  7. Scott says:

    Joan, Couldn’t have said it better myself, thank you!

  8. david carlson says:

    I must live in an alternate america, where the real issue is that Christians worship an American empire, rather than God’s empire. I am glad that is not your reality.

  9. LiarLunatic says:

    Being thankful for God’s good gifts and the ideals intended to preserve and share them is a worthy sentiment for today. Thank you, Kevin.

  10. Nate says:

    But Kevin, at what point do we have to admit that the ideals you’re talking about here are so far from reality as to now be non-existent? If 50 million dead babies isn’t enough, how many more have to die for you to no longer say this? If promotion of homosexual marriage isn’t enough, how much further do the laws of the nation need to degrade the family for you to no longer say this?

    As Peter Lethart commented in an article that made the rounds a few days ago: “This will force a major adjustment in conservative Christian stance toward America. We’ve fooled ourselves for decades into believing that Christian America was derailed recently and by a small elite. It’s tough medicine to realize that principles inimical to traditional Christian morals are now deeply embedded in our laws, institutions and culture. The only America that actually exists is one in which “marriage” includes same-sex couples and women have a Constitutional right to kill their babies. To be faithful, Christian witness must be witness against America.”

    Respectfully, I don’t think you’re fully embracing the new reality, Kevin. God has no interest in blessing America, and why would we even ask Him to? 50 million – legally.

  11. anaquaduck says:

    As America & other nations undergo cultural shifts & spiritual transfusions or transplants who knows what may take place. Abraham was bold & considerate enough to take his concerns to the Almighty.

    God was gracious enough to bless Nineveh through the preaching of Jonah…

  12. hal says:

    Concurring with Paul, above: The only one of these “self-evident” truths with strong Biblical support is the right to life. Liberty is a rare, even dangerous luxury (with which we Americans are greatly blessed). And the pursuit of happiness (aka selfishness) is contrary to Biblical values, and leads to the practice and promotion of every kind of vice and sin. American Christians need to see the difference between revealed truth and “self-evident truths.”

  13. Dear Kevin,

    Thanks for your blogs. Though I have yet to find in your musings any occasion for agreement, they are for me a source of great entertainment.

    I invite you and your faithful readers to attend the national gathering of Room for All, October 24-26, at Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI. As I’m sure you know, Room for All is working tirelessly for the full inclusion of LGBT persons within the Reformed Church in America.

    Already, 23 RCA congregations (and the number is growing) have followed the prompting of the Holy Spirit by declaring themselves LGBT-inclusive. Perhaps your own congregation one day will embrace the radically inclusive love of God as well.

    Like all clergy associated with Room for All, I work within my Classis (North Grand Rapids) and beyond to raise awareness of LGBT concerns, to affirm and celebrate same-sex relationships, and to offer the Sacraments to all who wish to receive them.

    I long for the day when you and your readers will find places on the frontal edge of the Spirit’s movement as the Church becomes increasingly open, inclusive, and Christ-like.

    Ecclesia semper reformanda est.

    Rev. Daniel Plasman,
    co-interim minister, Edgewood United Church, East Lansing, MI

  14. Dillon says:

    Thank you, Joan. Well-said. Kevin is *not* saying that America’s values are Biblical, as though make them *stand alone.* And I sense that, just as the American Church’s error in the 20th century may have been too high an exaltation of the State, so today our danger may be a sense of little to no patriotism. But until King Jesus calls us home, we are citizens of both states–heavenly and earthly–and as such, owe some obedience and honor to each.

    Each critical reader seems to be hearing Kevin to be saying something like: “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”?
    “Life”–our lives are not our own–they belong to God.
    “Liberty”–what Calvinist isn’t nervous about that word applied to creatures?–and
    “The Pursuit of Happiness”–gosh, if Christ pursued his own happiness…
    And rights? How do we square *those* with total depravity?

    But this is to rip each of these principles out of their historical contexts and *force them to stand alone,* as though our founding fathers absolutized them. But they did not absolutize them. (As is clear from the previous statement–that they are endowed by our Creator–that preface is not without content, since it grounds and provides context for how we are to understand the rights that follow.)

    That in mind, even a Calvinst in America could (should!) reinterpret:

    “Life” – We are given the gift of life from God, and, being made in His image, that life is intrinsically valuable. The State exists to protect that “right.” (We understand “rights” horizontally–it is a “right” which *fellow creatures* do not have the authority to withhold).

    “Liberty” – Not in an absolute Arminian sense. The framers had a category for God’s providence, and among humans, for community. They were not anarchists. Liberty does not mean “no governing body,” whether God or the State. But this liberty is first and foremost liberty of conscious, which extends to worship, speech, press, etc.–we live in a State, at the moment, that does not jail us for our worship of the One True God. For this, we ought to be thankful–first to God, and second to those men and women who have toiled, fought, and died protecting that liberty. To that end, American liberty, despite all its flaws and all the sins we beget in its name, is a gift from God to be celebrated.

    “Pursuit of happiness” – That is, we are free to pursue our own desired ends without intrusion from a government that might otherwise force us to pursue wrong ends against conscience. (As Kevin said, this must be kept in check by other principles–and not just utilitarian/libertarian “do no harm” principles, but we as a Church should say–checked by Scripture; imago dei theology, and natural law.) The pursuit of happiness extend to all spheres of life and is checked, ideally, by a common socioreligious consciousness. As the commonality of that consciousness erodes, government grows and amasses power to itself to keep order. That power, too, must be checked.
    But, suffice it to say: Christians should champion the “rights” of all persons to pursue their own ends (within constrained limits), since freedom of conscience–and derivatively, the pursuit of one’s own ends–is granted by virtue of being made in God’s image.

    That doesn’t mean we don’t vote according to our Christian consciences. We do. We bring our convictions about marriage, sexual ethics, the sanctity of human life, loving the poor, etc.–with us into the public square. But society is to be won to these positions *through persuasion, not coercion* until Jesus comes back.

    And insofar as America’s founding fathers and the documents they’ve crafted makes it a point to protect these rights under God, they are due homage. Not sweeping, knee-jerk suspicion of State loyalty cloaked by piety.

    That said, I hear you–neither obedience nor reverence to America should be unquestioning. And doubtless, as Kevin has pointed out elsewhere, there’s always danger of patriotism becoming jingoism.

    But likewise is there danger at the other extreme, where we become so suspicious of political engagement in our churches that we, like the lazy servant given his talent, bury it, rather than use the gifts we have been given by God–a voice in a representative republican democracy–for His glory and for our good–that is, to advance policies of human flourishing.

    And we, like EVERY other country, have had our failures. Tons of them. And yet, there is much to celebrate. I think Kevin captures that spirit well while being balanced enough to acknowledge the difficulties of absolutized patriotism or “rights” language.

    To that end, happy (belated) 4th!

  15. Friend says:

    Let us remember that these unalienable rights – including that of life were given to us by our Creator. We were created with them not born with them so preborn babies should be guaranteed them as well.

  16. Daniel – Is it possible that the 23 RCA congregations to which you refer weren’t led by the Spirit to make their churches LGBT inclusive but were perhaps doing something more mundane like getting on the broad road or bowing to the spirit of the age?

    I’m curious as to what the pro-LGBT crowd foresees as the outcome of all this grand social experimentation. [i.e. redefining marriage / redefining sin] Will it be a more moral and socially healthy society? In my understanding of Scripture those who defy God’s laws only end up proving them in the end.

    Ps. 119:18

  17. This is a GREAT post. I can really get behind this type of patriotism. I have no issue with being thankful for what God has given us in the United States.
    I would be careful with the reference to Thomas Jefferson. He is the man who edited the bible to take out all miracles (including the resurrection) and this Jefferson bible is given out to many of our politicians so I think it’s still causing some damage today.

  18. Drake says:

    A brief reading of the Bible proves the Declaration wrong. All men are not created equal. Israelites received a greater enfranchisement than foreigners and the first born son received a double portion. 1 Cor 11 states that man is the head of woman and on we go. Exo 21 and many other places warrant the holding of slaves and Gen. 9 disenfranchises the Hamite race. Jefferson was operating off of his Communism that he learned from the French. He was wrong and we are reaping the whirlwind for his errors of judgment.

  19. Dillon says:

    Drake, I think it’s important to ask what is meant by “equal,” right. Some are tall, some are short, others fast, others slow. That’s not at issue. The question is whether or not all persons–those made in God’s image–have equal value. Our Declaration declares, in unison with the Bible, that the answer to this second question is Yes. Next, we should consider how we are to synthesize God’s election of the Israelites with all humanity being made in God’s image. (And if you yourself are not Jewish by heritage, you’ll have a tough time down that line. Here’s a helpful post by TGC contributor Justin Taylor on Jesus as the New Israel:

    You’ll recall that, even in the Old Testament, God reached out to the gentiles–Rahab, the Ninevites, others.

    And already in Genesis, God had told Abraham that *all* the nations would be blessed through him (Gen. 12:4).

    But as I see it, Deuteronomy 7 is a tough text to square with saying all people are not created equal and using God’s election of Israel to show it. Was God’s unique election of the Israelites due to them being principally better, greater–of “unequal” higher human dignity?–and the answer is no (Deut. 7:7). He set his affections on them *despite* who they were. And he is gracious to do the same with you and I.

    The holding of slaves was primarily for conquered nations or those in debt–slave holders were not intrinsically better or higher persons. The holding of slaves was not so racially motivated as it has been in more recent centuries, which is partly why its problematic to tie the practice back into Hamite disenfranchisement.

    In any case, I do invite you to reconsider some of the parallels here drawn. Much love, brother.

  20. Nate says:

    Daniel Plasman, please hear clearly and emphatically – you are not a Christian, you do not know God, your churches are not true churches that follow Jesus.

  21. Addendum to Nate’s comment to Daniel Plasman: We’d also really love to see you and those in your institution (I can’t say church since the church is the body of Christ) actually find freedom to leave those lifestyles and follow Jesus. Please read the bible (hopefully a respectable version) or continue reading it as the case may be, and think about it.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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