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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 drops of biblical truth that 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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18 thoughts on “Thank God for the Idea of America”

  1. David says:

    I want to start off by saying that I respect your contributions to this website and to Christianity in general, but this article is looking at America through rose colored glasses. America has done dreadful things in the world almost from the beginning, and to overlook the evil that has been committed by our government is naive at best. We drove the native Americans from their land, we held slaves for 100 years, we have tampered with rulers in latin america and the middle east. We dropped over 26,000 bombs on other parts of the world last year alone. Pledging allegiance to or covering up the sins of our nation should be considered idolatry. One of the only times where many Christians will downplay sin is when they are talking about the United States of America, and it’s not right.

  2. Keith says:

    Hi David. I thought Pastor DeYoung laid out a beautiful case for the “idea of America”. Loving the idea is not turning a blind eye to all the tragedies done in the name of America. Popes and pastors sometimes say they speak for God yet distort the scriptures for personal gain and glory. Yet, scripture is still the truth. So to is the idea of America.

  3. Jim says:

    I think it is important to separate the idea, the framework, the Constitution from its outworking. I have been reading through my Bible and I am currently in Joshua. The Lord laid out a framework, a “constitution”, Laws by which the Israelites were to live by. If they did the Lord’s blessing would be upon them. This is similar to our Founding Fathers’ work. If we followed through with the sentence that Kevin highlighted maybe things would be much different for the better. Maybe slavery would have ended sooner and better. Maybe we would have lived in harmony with the Native Americans. Not sure about all the bombs, sometimes war has been necessary for us to participate in. I will leave that one alone.
    Do we discount all that the Lord gave Moses because the Israelites disobeyed what the Lord designed for them to live by? I think not. Re-read and look at what Kevin is focusing on — the plan, not its outworking
    I read Kevin’s article this way. I am grateful for the men who invested so much energy and thought and discussion, in harsh conditions, to deliver to us a unique and new way of building a nation. The results of how we as Americans walked it out — not so much. David (above) does list out many great sins and indelible stains against our nation. We are a nation of sinners but, I don’t think that should necessarily sully the work and product of our Founding Fathers. There are no perfect nations and certainly there some nations that are much worse — I for one am grateful to God to be an American, even with all flaws and sins.

  4. Blake Law says:

    Pastor DeYoung, it’s good to see you identify some of the imperfections in the idea of America! I could list others. Can we assume this article means you are on your way to becoming an establishmentarian??

  5. Carol Foster says:

    Ideas like empires are fleeting, but give credit where credit is due. America, historically is a young nation but like all nations she has done good things and she has done bad things. I’m not a veteran traveler of the world so I don’t know if there’s another place I would like to call home, but today, I am proud to be an American and a child of the eternal kingdom of Christ!

  6. Michael Lyons says:

    Thank you for not simply being another “gospel centered” self-loather. Calvinists can’t claim Gods sovereignty in all things and then deny his role in forming this nation. This lack of appreciative spirit is saddening to see, and I think we are seeing the fruit of a generation of millennials who have not served in the Armed Forces and have nothing but a complaining spirit and internet access. Be thankful for crying out loud. America is full of faults, but so were the native Americans before us and every other nation or tribe in history.

  7. Michael Lyons says:

    By the way, I am one of those who wasn’t forced to serve and complains too much sometimes. That is something to self loathe. I think if we had more patriotism, knowing that God established our boundaries, our country and its leaders would not be morally bankrupt

  8. Gregg says:

    Nations run by imperfect people, will always be a target for someone to dissect its flaws. America is still a preferred destination by those with a dream for a better tomorrow. If we weren’t looked upon as the world’s policeman and a beacon of security for the oppressed, we could wash our hands of it all and just mind our business like say Iceland? Plenty of dirty laundry we have. But we humble ourselves under the Almighty and ask for forgiveness and endeavor to do better.

  9. Curt Day says:

    On what America was founded should be more determined by its history than its words. And that history continues to show that America was founded on privilege than equality.

  10. Tim says:

    This privilege argument is already wornout, every nation has groups in power, to imply that the country that defeated the nazis and the communists is not special and though having faults is not great makes you a whiner of epic proportions.

  11. Dean says:

    Its easy to dislike America & play a blame game but there is a lot to like about it too as I write from the outside looking in from a distance & as its hype, influence & culture makes its way across the continents like a British Empire, or Spanish, Portugese, Dutch, French, Russian,German, Chinese or whatever.

    It is a good thing to be set free from unjust oppression or to hold up under it. The main problem with America & humanity is that it is divided just like so many other nations. To be free to compete, bicker & war against each other in states of madness & enmity creates a lot of tiresome & repetative situations & that is where truth & the cross shine with a glory that is incomparable.

    America is one nation in a moment of time, God is the founding Father of time, space & all the nations that have been tabled over earth throughout the Centuries.

    I too enjoy Christian inspired freedoms as I live in a Western shaped society & a beautiful but ravaged land & am thankful for that.

  12. neville briggs says:

    Sadly, the declaration ” we hold these truths to be self evident ” is once again humans starting with themselves as the foundation of truth. Exactly the same problem as Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil instead of looking to God who is the way, the truth and the life.
    There seems to be an inconsistency of these ” self evident truths ” that they held , being applied to the life liberty and happiness of Africans bought into forced slave labour on 18th century American properties .

  13. Theresa says:

    How can we possibly be thankful for a Nation that has legalized the killing of the unborn and same sex union?

  14. Sam says:

    What about the native Americans? They are still marginalized and horribly neglected. America and Canada belong to the Native Americans but sadly our countries fail to recognize this. It is a sad history of abuse and robbery in some respects that is overlooked to this day. With the celebrations of our countries I pray the church would be awakened again to reach the native Americans for the glory of Christ.

  15. A great exposition of John Loch’s Enlighten case for natural law leading to reason-based principles and good government based on the rights of the governed. The official church theology at the time was teaching and defending divine right of rulers, and Enlightment thinking was used as the philosophical basis to oppose it. The founders were deep into the Enlightenment thinking literature, including Loch, and Sidney, and built their philosophy of human government around it (natural law and “nature’s god”), arguing for the Enlightenment ideas of life, liberty and happiness (the Enlightment idea of flourishing). These are not, per se, granted by the Bible’s God if one thinks carefully. Liberty is certainly a good for people (subjected to virtue and wisdom), but not held, Biblically, as a “right.” Human Reason, (leading to biblical-looking principles, but not biblical-based principles), was the faith and was viewed as a universal transcendent source of virtue. (Thomas Jefferson cut out of his Bible the passages he disagreed with based on enlightment thinking and his reason – I’ve seen his Bible. It’s at Monticello.)
    This dependence on the assumption of the final good of human reason was vulnerable to future thinking introduced in the 1800s by Huxley and others, leading eventually to philosophies such as pragmatism, reinforced by Darwin’s theory.

  16. A great exposition of John Locke’s (among others) Enlighten case for natural law leading to reason-based principles and good government based on the rights of the governed. The official church theology at the time was teaching and defending divine right of rulers, and Enlightment thinking was used as the philosophical basis to oppose it. The founders were deep into the Enlightenment thinking literature, including Locke, and Sidney (who was executed by the King), and built their philosophy of human government around it (natural law and “nature’s god), arguing for the Enlightenment ideas of life, liberty and happiness (the Enlightment idea of flourishing). These are not, per se, granted by the Bible’s God if one thinks carefully. Liberty is certainly a good for people (subjected to virtue and wisdom), but not held, Biblically, as a “right.” Human Reason, (leading to biblical-looking principles, but not biblical-based principles), was the faith and was viewed as a universal transcendent source of virtue. (Thomas Jefferson cut out of his Bible the passages he disagreed with based on enlightment thinking and his reason – I’ve seen his Bible. It’s at Monticello.)
    This dependence on the assumption of the final good of human reason was vulnerable to future thinking introduced in the 1800s by Huxley and others, leading eventually to philosophies such as pragmatism, reinforced by Darwin’s theory.

  17. Ross Riggan says:

    I’m just encouraged to see a reformed Christian leader actually acknowledging and being grateful to God for this country as opposed to blowing it off and speaking only of being citizens of God’s Kingdom. Granted, a government of, by, and for the people will be stained by people’s depravity and have done horrible things. But to deny that God has chosen to be gracious to so many of us by allowing us to live in this nation with so many freedoms bought at the price of so many sons and daughters, is ungrateful at best and madness ultimately. If this is not so, then be honest with yourself and go live somewhere else.

  18. Peter Bailey says:

    Kevin – I am truly thankful to be in America. I really am. But when I put our “unalienable rights” like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness alongside the “rights” we have as children of God, I see a glaring difference. While the right to live life – to exist – seems to be self-evident and quite natural, as a Christ-follower my life is now hidden in Christ and he lives in me. My life is not mine – it’s his. This is what Paul says in Galatians 2:20. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” While liberty or the right to freedom from oppression is also a desirable goal, the Christian’s freedom is qualitatively different. It’s a freedom first and foremost from sin and death that is only found in Christ. And this freedom isn’t a license to live as we want. Paul says in Romans 6 that that we have been “set free from sin and have become slaves of God. “ We trade a slavery to sin for a slavery to righteousness. Pursuit of happiness isn’t the goal either. Happiness is a byproduct of Christ living in us. When we “take delight in the Lord” then he gives us the desires of our heart (Ps. 37). Jesus says that we are blessed when we hunger and thirst for righteousness, are peacemakers, and are persecuted. The pursuit of our own happiness is contrary to the mission of the church. It is at odds with everything that has to do with glorifying God. When our life, our liberty, and our pursuit of our own happiness dies, then and only then are we set free from our American “rights” and given true freedom.

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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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