The Declaration of Independence severed the relationship of colonies to the colonizer. Although this is not the document upon which the nation’s government is established (that’s the U.S. Constitution), it sets in place a vision for how the emerging nation would see itself. In laying out this vision, Thomas Jefferson, a Deist and a religious skeptic, drew upon political ideals that had been in circulation for nearly a century, ideals that drew inspiration from a number of sources, including John Locke. Locke and his contemporaries believed in the importance of Reason, and believed Truth was self-evident, if only we would open our eyes to it. Locke’s vision influenced political ideas, but also religious ones, as is seen in the writings of the Founders of my denomination, a faith tradition born on what was then the American Frontier not long after the establishment of a new nation on American soil.
Jefferson wrote these words that are known to many Americans, and oft quoted in recent years by many who see in this document a blueprint for small government. My interest isn’t so much that argument as the question of what inalienable rights are truly self evident. Consider this statement:
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.
Jefferson goes on to discuss how a government might be formed that could enact and uphold these unalienable rights, though the debate as to the formation of this government would have to wait to after the end of the Revolution and a trial form of government under the Articles of Confederation that failed miserably. From there the Constitution was formed, but not without controversy. My point today isn’t that conversation, but rather what truths are self-evident.
Let’s start with the question of equality. Jefferson declared that all men were created equal, but as enacted and as understood at that time – this didn’t include women nor did it include African Americans (most of whom were slaves) nor did it include Native Americans. In fact, it really didn’t include many men, except those who owned property. So how self-evident was this ideal of equality?
Then come the specific unalienable rights with which we have been endowed by the Creator – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What is the nature of these rights, for as laid out here, they seem rather ambiguous. When you read the rest of the text the claims made against the Crown you find reference to questions of taxation, representation, protection, and the like. I find it interesting that no claims are made about religious freedom. The signers of that document apparently were comfortable with the arrangements of the day, even though many faith traditions were treated as second class citizens under the existing establishments. So, if we are to bring this statement into the present, what should it say to us? What rights are unalienable? What does equality look like?
Since that document was written our understanding of equality has expanded considerably. Women now have the right to vote, as do African Americans and other minority groups. There is much more religious freedom than was envisioned at the time. But we’re still figuring this out. For instance, are gays and lesbians equal before the law?
And regarding this question of pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, I hear a lot of speech-making about the need to get government out of our lives. I find it ironic that many of the same people who are demanding that the government stay out of our lives (usually meaning economic and environmental regulations), are seeking to pass laws that prohibit gays and lesbians from getting married. If marriage makes a person happy, and if happiness is a self-evident right, then how can the government prohibit gay marriage? One might go even further and ask why is it that the government is in the business of determining what marriage in the 21st century looks like? Perhaps government has an interest in this, but is it self-evident?
I’ll throw another issue into the hopper for discussion. I have friends who are pushing for decriminalization/legalization of marijuana. If they find happiness in smoking marijuana, and their decision to do so has no negative impact on society (in fact a legal but regulated marijuana industry might lower crime rates and solve the budget deficit), why is government preventing them from engaging this freedom?
I’m not taking a position on either of these issues at this point, though I do have my own beliefs. What I want to do is ask the question – in the 21st century what God-given rights are truly self-evident? And how do we determine what is right and what is not? Back in the 18th century appeal was made to Reason, which many believed was a gift of God to humanity. Many still believe that our ability to think, to reason, is a gift of God, and that we can know something about what we should be doing through attending to Reason – but is it self-evident? And is what is self-evident in one generation self-evident to another? It appears that 18th century American Revolutionaries didn’t think that the equality and rights they were fighting for applied to the slaves or to Native Americans, or even to women.
So how should we proceed, especially when we’re not all in agreement as to what is truly self-evident? If we appeal, as the Declaration of Independence does to the Creator, to the Supreme Judge, and Divine Providence, whose understanding of this reality should prevail? Or is this a contested space that requires a great deal of humility on our part?