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Why Christians Should Defend the Declaration’s Most Controversial Claim

Former Senator Rick Santorum once said that the Constitution is the “how” of America—the operator’s manual—but the “why” of America—who we are as a people—is in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Many Americans would disagree that the Declaration’s most famous sentence still represents who we are as a people. Indeed, a primary dividing line in our country today is between those who think that sentence is literally true and those who do not. I believe it is literally true. And I think when we examine it, clause by clause, we find that it’s a claim that all Christians in America should defend.

We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . 

Within the first eight words we already find two claims that today are considered radically divisive—that there is such as thing as truth, and that truth can be self-evident.

For a claim to be self-evident, as the Cambridge Dictionary explains, it must be “clear or obvious without needing any proof or explanation.” In 1776 it could be taken for granted that most people believed there are self-evident truths. However, by the 20th century, the situation had reversed. As Alan Bloom wrote in his best-selling book The Closing of the American Mind (1987):

There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That any one should regard [relativism] as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2 + 2 = 4. These are things you don’t think about.

For Christians, the truth about truth should be self-evident: truth cannot be relative, because it is rooted in the absolute nature of God. As Isaiah 65:16 tells us, God is the “God of truth.” And Jesus tells us that he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). We can know some truths as self-evident when they are rooted in the revealed Word given to us by the one who is the Truth.

. . . that all men are created equal . . . 

Critics of the Declaration often contend that this claim about men being created equal is referring only to white men, or more particularly white men with property. While that is a reasonable interpretation, the man who drafted the document—Thomas Jefferson—seemed to have intended a broader meaning. In an earlier draft of the Declaration, Jefferson wrote, “the Christian King of Great Britain [i.e., King George]: determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold . . .”

“In other words, [Jefferson] is calling the slaves ‘men’,” Danielle Allen writes in her book Our Declaration. “And when he does this, he can’t mean males only, because those markets were for men, women, and children. So when, in the second sentence, he writes that all men are created equal, he must mean all people—whatever their color, sex, age, or status.” This is not an anachronistic, modern interpretation, for as Christopher Kaczor notes, Southern Confederates during the Civil War era rejected the Declaration precisely on account of its inclusivity of all human beings.

We can’t fully know how Jefferson resolved the tension between his abhorrence of slavery and his owning of slaves. But his personal failing should not prevent us embracing the truth embedded in his claim. As Daniel Darling says in The Dignity Revolution:

Imagine, for a moment, if God’s people began to lead a new, quiet revolution whose foundation was a simple premise: every human being—no matter who they are, no matter where they are, no matter what they have done or have had done to them—possesses dignity, because every human is made in the image of God. By God’s grace, our churches would change, and our communities would change.

All men—all people—are created equal in dignity, because all are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26).

. . . they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . . 

Whether the Founders were Christians or Deists, they agreed that God was responsible for the creation of mankind. Today, though, nearly in one-in-five Americans (19 percent) believe that man developed without any role for God in the process. It’s not surprising then that so many are also skeptical about the concept of unalienable rights, rights that cannot be bartered away, or given away, or taken away except in punishment of crime.

For example, last month the Department of State announced its intention to create a Commission on Unalienable Rights. The stated purpose of the Commission will be to “provide the Secretary of State advice and recommendations concerning international human-rights matters. The commission will provide fresh thinking about human-rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” After the announcement Politico pointed out that “some activists fear [the commission] is aimed at narrowing protections for women and members of the LGBT community.” Writing in The Washington Post, political scientist Clifford Bob says, “The Trump Commission on Unalienable Rights is likely to champion the “natural family” and “traditional values.” Like too many of our fellow citizens, Bob does not see championing of traditional values or natural family as a laudable objective.

As Christians we should recognize the reality of unalienable rights. Because we are not our own, but belong to God, there are certain rights given to us as gifts by God that we cannot give away and that cannot be taken from us (1 Cor. 6:19–20).

. . . that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

During his life Jefferson never explained what he meant by this phrase. But scholars believe he was obviously influenced by George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights (adopted June 12, 1776), which referred to “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

In our era we believe that happiness is a subjective state defined solely by the person. But in prior, less individualistic periods, happiness had a more robust meaning. As James R. Rogers explains, it meant well-being in the broader sense, and while it included the right to meet physical needs, it also included a significant moral and religious dimension. “’[H]appiness’ in the Declaration,” Rogers adds, “should be understood centrally as a sort of virtuous felicity, perhaps in the sense of Greek eudaimonia, although one refined by Christian sensibilities.”

We also misunderstand Jefferson’s use of the term “pursuit.” The historian Arthur Schlesinger clarifies that at the time of the Declaration “the pursuit of happiness” did not mean chasing or seeking it, but referred to actually practicing happiness. “So “the pursuit of happiness” means something like occupying one’s life with the activities that provide for overall well-being,” Rogers says. “This certainly includes a right to material things, but it goes beyond that to include humanity’s spiritual and moral condition.”

To put this in a biblical frame, the Declaration is stating that we have an unalienable right to occupy our lives seeking “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” (Phil. 4:8).

Better Than Jefferson Knew

It’s often claimed that in establishing the American republic, the Founding Fathers built “better than they knew.” The same could be said about Jefferson’s writings, for he often wrote better than he knew.

While Jefferson was not a Christian, he embedded in his well-crafted sentence some of the most essential political truths for Christians: that all people have equal dignity; that rights are given by a personal God; that the right to “Life”—from conception to natural death—is an irrevocable gift to all humanity; that the right to “Liberty” comes with corresponding duties; and that the “pursuit of Happiness” is the means to seek human flourishing, a teleological end to liberty that is ordained, ordered, and constrained in purpose by God.

These are ideas still worth defending.