“The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity. I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God.” – John Adams, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson on June 28, 1813.
On this Good Friday, let me encourage you to think about those foundational American rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in their original and superior spiritual sense: as gifted to us in the death of Jesus Christ, which we remember today, and his resurrection that we celebrate on Easter Sunday.
How many of the founding fathers were practicing, orthodox, dogmatic Christians is a subject of much debate. What is clear, however, is the fundamental importance of Christianity (and Judaism) and its two millennia of theological and philosophical exposition to the ideas of natural rights and government that influenced the founding generation.
In Western Christian civilization, particularly in the American and the British liberal traditions, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are considered important, even unalienable, rights to human beings because Christ first offered them spiritually, according to the Bible.
1. Life: Every person has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory and standard. According to Romans 6:23, the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ. Indeed, he gave his own life so we could have ours. Elsewhere, Jesus calls himself the bread of life.
2. Liberty: Romans 8:2 says that the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and of death. The Apostle Paul expounds elsewhere on our inheritable right to be children of God, not servants:
“God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Wherefore you are no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ…. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free.”
3. The Pursuit of Happiness: The ancients understood true happiness as stemming from communion with God. Though today, we equate it with the pursuit of the lifestyle of your choice – in careers, family life, where you live – in Philippians 2, we find Jesus leaving his throne in heaven to be the most humble of men, becoming a servant. While this may seem counterintuitive to our modern understanding of happiness, it was through this choice, we are taught, that he pursued communion with us – ultimately our happiness.
It is for this reason that the liberty to worship God unhindered by the state was so essential to the success of the American experiment. Men and women freely seeking God have always us apart. Tocqueville was just of many who recognized this.
In this day and age and in light of the increasing infringements upon religious freedom and the growing hostility toward people of the Judeo-Christian faiths, we should reiterate their importance as the foundation of our great country and be thankful for the freedom and security we do have in comparison to much of the rest of the world.