By B. Nathaniel Sullivan
The Declaration of Independence affirms timeless and revolutionary ideals. Many “Declaration principles” are rooted in Scripture. Drawing from the words of the Declaration, we will examine ten truths embedded in the document. We’ll learn not just how important these are but also how far we’ve departed from them and why we must uphold them again in our day.
Principle One: God exists, has established an ordered and moral universe, and holds humanity accountable. The Declaration upholds the Founders’ efforts “to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” This assumes or presupposes that the people involved are not acting arbitrarily but in accord with God and His revealed will.
Principle Two: Absolute truths exist and are knowable. The Founders declared certain truths to be “self-evident.” A self-evident truth, by its very existence, rightly claims that those who deny it are foolish. Even if people are deceived and holding to falsehoods unintentionally, they are still believing ideas that are wrong. Today the idea that a biological man actually can be a woman or that a biological woman can legitimately identify as a man is an example of a modern falsehood that must be countered with the truth.
Principle Three: God and His laws establish the track on which men and nations must travel to attain happiness, fulfillment, greatness, and to reach their God-given potential. Our Founders knew that people couldn’t live fulfilled lives merely by following whims and impulses. Rather, they must “assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” Consider the word entitle. The Declaration’s architects believed that those things to which people are entitled are granted and governed by “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Today people look to the government for everything to which they believe they are “entitled.”
Principle Four: God has created human beings equal in value, and He intends for them to be treated with dignity and respect. Here we focus on the statement that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, [and] that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Why did the Founders say this but not abolish slavery? To be fair, we must evaluate our Founders not in light of our own culture but in light of theirs. America’s “Founders were born into a society that permitted slavery.”1 Despite this, some swam against the tide as they expressed resistance and even opposition to the practice.
Thomas Jefferson, himself a slave owner, was one such man. He became the principal writer of the Declaration, and in his original draft, he took the King of England to task for his role in the slave trade. While this portion of Jefferson’s draft was cut and did not appear in the final copy, the ideal that “all men are created equal” became one of the most powerful ever upheld by a nation. Through the years, “all of the greatest advocates for human equality in America—Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Suffragettes, Martin Luther King Jr.—pointed to this passage in the Declaration to give force to their demands for justice.”2
We rightly celebrate this, but a word of warning is in order. In recent decades, Americans foolishly have rallied around the banner of equality alone when, in the original statement on America’s “birth certificate,” the meaning of the word equal is informed, tempered, and shaped by the word created. Created, in turn, is linked inseparably to the divine title Creator. The implications of these realities, of course, are enormous.
Principle Five: Rights are inherent and God-given and are rooted in God’s having created members of the human race in His own image. The rights the Declaration identifies—“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”—tell us much about the kinds of rights the Founders recognized. Similar rights have been enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Social scientists call these “negative rights.” To enjoy them, individuals must be free to act in unhindered ways. Conversely, “positive rights” are “achieved” through government manipulation, a process that tramples all over the negative, inherent rights of others and that flies in the face of the government’s God-given, limited role.3,4 America’s upholding and protecting negative rights through the years has been a major reason the United States became the greatest and freest nation on earth, as well as the most civil, powerful, benevolent, and prosperous.
Principle Six: Equality, as used by the Founders, refers to equality of worth and affirmation of natural opportunities, not to equality of outcomes achieved by government manipulation of outcomes, opportunities, or both. The Founders correctly saw equality as being inherent among human beings rather than a place at which people arrive only after the government has orchestrated and rearranged the playing field. Government involvement on this level inevitably restricts personal freedom and liberty.
Principle Seven: Rights are inextricably linked to God’s laws. God’s moral laws, including the Ten Commandments, do not merely show us how to live but also carve out rights that everyone should honor and respect. The commandments against murder, stealing, and lying affirm personal rights to life, property, and an honest reputation, respectively. Respect for God’s laws makes ordered liberty and the exercise of rights possible.
Principle Eight: Government does not grant rights but is responsible for recognizing, maintaining, and protecting them. Significantly, when government protects inherent rights, it fulfills its God-given duty to punish those who do wrong according to God’s standard of morality and ethics and to commend or reward those who do right. This maintains order in society and makes personal freedom possible (see Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17; 1 Tim. 2:1-4).
Principle Nine: Government has limited authority. The Declaration of Independence itself explains why government must be limited. First, it says the government’s role is to secure or protect God-given rights. Second, it affirms that the government’s powers are derived “from the consent of the governed.” Third, it asserts that the powers of government are to be “just.” The government’s authority is not absolute. It operates under the law, even as the nation’s citizens live under the law.
Principle Ten: When government oversteps its authority and begins to achieve ends contrary to those it was established and designed by God to accomplish, the people have a right and even a duty to hold it accountable. This even includes abolishing a tyrannical government and replacing it with one that will fulfill its duty to protect inherent rights: “[W]henever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
The ultimate boss in the United States is “We the People.” When government steps beyond its God-ordained authority, the people are charged with holding it accountable.
Let us rediscover these tenets, uphold them, and practice them once again. Liberty depends on it.
To read the series of essays on which this article is based, visit wordfoundations.com/principles-of-liberty.
For a five-session Bible study series exploring the above ten principles, visit discoverbedrocktruth.org/principles-of-liberty.
B. Nathaniel Sullivan is a writer, Christian educator, and blogger at wordfoundations.com.
1. William J. Bennett, America, the Last Best Hope—Volume 1: From the Age of Discovery to a World at War (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 122.
2. Ibid., 86.
3. B. Nathaniel Sullivan, “Return to the Founders’ Perspective on Rights, Part 2,” Word Foundations, https://wordfoundations.com/2019/11/12/return-to-the-founders-perspective-on-rights-part-2.
4. B. Nathaniel Sullivan, “The Purpose of Government,” Word Foundations, https://wordfoundations.com/the-purpose-of-government-3.
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