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.
The United States of America is a nation founded on ideals, particularly ideals relating to the dignity of the human person. Unfortunately, the laws of our government and the personal lives of our leaders have not always perfectly reflected these ideals. For example, consider the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, who—despite penning the words “all men are created equal”—owned slaves. Such blatant moral failings and hypocrisies have led some to disparage America, the men who founded it, and even question the ideals for which the Founders stood. But the moral failings of men like Thomas Jefferson don’t automatically invalidate the ideals they claimed to espouse. Truth is truth, regardless of human behavior. But how do we know if the ideals Jefferson wrote about are true? Is there anything supporting them besides a purported “self-evidence”?
Jefferson and the rest of the Committee of Five charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence (John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston) were students of Natural Law theory. They believed certain things could be self-evidently true (that is, known through ordinary human reason and not needing further proof). But Christians should nevertheless evaluate such truth claims against Scripture, no matter how self-evidentially true they might seem.
Let’s put our deeply ingrained, patriotic feelings about the Declaration aside for a moment and ask ourselves: Are its underlying claims about human beings true? As Christians, we believe the standard of truth is God’s revealed Word. As self-evident as the truths of America’s founding documents may seem to those of us who have grown up in this country, we must examine its claims against Scripture, as we must do with any truth claim.
First, let’s take a closer look at the structure of the Declaration. It is comprised of five parts: an introduction, a preamble (providing a philosophical justification for separation), an indictment (a list of 27 grievances against the King of Great Britain), a denunciation (detailing America’s efforts to make peace with the British people), and a conclusion (asserting that the necessary conditions for declaring independence from Great Britain have been reached).
We will concern ourselves with the preamble, the most famous of the five parts. It provides the philosophical justification for American separation from British rule. Crucial to this justification are three truth claims about human beings, claims which the Declaration considers to be “self-evident”: 1) all men are created equal; 2) all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; 3) these unalienable Rights include Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Does the Bible support these claims? Let’s examine them one by one:
1. All men are created equal
While the Bible never says the words “all men are created equal,” Scripture tells us in clear, unambiguous language that all human beings have equal standing before God. We are all created by God (John 1:3) and made in His image (Genesis 1:27). We were all created out of dust (Psalm 103:14). Finally, we are all sinners and fall short of God’s glory and perfect standard (Romans 3:23).
Scripture also tells us of God’s impartiality towards humans (Romans 2:11, Acts 10:34, Ephesians 6:9). As it is commonly said, the ground at the foot of the cross is level, and all come to God in need of His grace. He will redeem people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation (Revelation 5:9-10). Eternal life is available to anyone who believes (John 3:16). Thus, from the Bible’s point of view, all humans are indeed created equal.
2. All men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights
While the Bible never uses the phrase “unalienable Rights,” it does talk a great deal about our Creator. This is significant for our discussion because the Declaration purports that our inalienable rights proceed from our Creator. To put it another way, our Creator is the reason or grounds for why we have rights in the first place.
The Bible does tell us that our worth and dignity as human beings is directly contingent upon the identity of our sovereign, omnipotent Creator. Those who bear the Creator’s image (all humans) are due a certain type of treatment from their fellow image-bearers (one might even call this proper treatment “rights”). Such due treatment can be said to be “unalienable” in the sense that our status as God’s image-bearers cannot be taken away. To unjustly harm another image-bearer is an offense against the Creator (Psalm 51:4; 2 Samuel 12:9, 13). From these considerations, the Declaration’s claim of certain unalienable rights agrees with a Christian worldview.
3. Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness
According to the Declaration of Independence, all of us are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And while the Bible does not enumerate these rights in exactly the same way, it is clear, on closer examination, that the biblical text speaks to these issues. Consider the following rights and their biblical support:
Murder is explicitly forbidden in the Bible (Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:17) precisely because humans are created in God’s image (Genesis 9:6). Human life can only be justly taken away under the authority of God—either by an authority established by God (Romans 13:1-4) or in a situation authorized by God.
Stealing another person’s autonomy through kidnapping and forcible enslavement is prohibited (Exodus 21:16). Jesus proclaimed a (spiritual) liberty to the captives and oppressed (Isaiah 61:1, Luke 14:18-19). Stealing other people’s possessions is prohibited (Exodus 20:15, Deuteronomy 5:19).
Pursuit of happiness
True happiness is found in God (Psalm 16:11, 37:4). Finding satisfaction in one’s labor is called a gift of God (Ecclesiastes 3:13).
Forming a “More Perfect Union”
It is tragic—and a horrible stain on our country’s reputation and conscience—that some of the men who helped found the United States of America willingly participated in the institution of slavery, which was so fundamentally inconsistent with the high ideals professed by the Declaration of Independence. Whether it was due to love of money or comfort, fear of financial ruin, or fear of their fellow (white) man’s opinion, enough of these men balked at the idea of relinquishing their slaves that the nation built on the conviction of the universal dignity of humanity began with a monstrous hypocrisy.
Thomas Jefferson’s personal failure to respect the human dignity of the men and women he enslaved is just that, a personal failure, albeit one that affected far more people than just himself. Just because the purveyors of our founding ideals failed to live up to those ideals does not mean that those ideals are flawed. Rather, it means that human beings are flawed, as Scripture tells us repeatedly (Psalm 14:1-3, Psalm 53:1-3, Isaiah 53:6, Romans 3:23, Romans 5:12, etc.).
It has been said that you cannot go back and change the beginning, but you can start right now and change the ending. There was a lot of good about America’s beginning, along with a great deal of shamefulness. We can allow the shamefulness of America’s original sins to continue to define us, or we can learn from them, reject them, and press on toward the “more perfect union” that our Founding Fathers aspired toward and that we are capable of being.