Message 135, Great Spiritual Moments in American History: July 4, 17761776

(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved

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Alexis de Toqueville, the early nineteenth century French historian who remarkably chronicled American culture and politics in his classic work Democracy in America, wrote that unlike in Europe, Christianity was destined to play a pivotal role in our nation’s development.  In the U.S., Christianity was not tied to ancient ideas like the divine right of kings or Priests and Popes exercising political power.  However, as de Toqueville noted, even as our constitution forbade state support of any particular religion, Christianity strongly influenced American life.  Indeed, some sociologists have proposed that the so-called American creed has, in fact, become a de facto national religion where our country is seen as the Biblical shining city on a hill – ordained by God to be one to which all other nations look.

Americans routinely invoke God’s blessing upon the nation, our currency places our trust in God, the President is seen as a national Pastor, our flag is worshipped as a symbol much like the Cross and we pledge our fidelity to this one nation under God.

Not surprisingly, far too many Christians have conflated their religion with the civil and political affairs of America.  George Washington is our Moses, Abraham Lincoln our Jesus and the constitution our Bible.  Our laws derive from the Ten Commandments and they must continue to be based upon them.

Arguing against this theological view of America are many secularists who assert that the founders never intended our nation to be identified with one particular religion.  Indeed, they actively worked against such a notion.  These critics of an American creed or religion, however, often assume there is no spiritual heritage in our history and overlook the very real spiritual events and thought streams in our nation’s history – ideas that are profound in their concern for the welfare of not just Americans, but of all humanity.

My series this month of July will look at particular events in our history that are deeply spiritual – ones that invoke not a specific theistic God or savior but ones that clearly call on the principles of a universal higher power that knows no nationality, race, religion or ethnicity.  I hope to explore with you ideas that suggest that America, despite its many imperfections and hypocrisies, has continually tried to discover and advance rights and privileges that are creator given to all people.  Our history, therefore, can be seen in such a light – not as a jingoistic story of American greatness but as an evolving effort to advance humanity as a whole.

Sitting at a small wooden writing desk in a cramped, fly infested Philadelphia apartment,  Thomas Jefferson wrote the seminal document in American history and one of the most important in all history.  The Declaration of Independence was intended, however, to be an eighteenth century version of a press release.  It announced the specific reasons for the colonists’ rebellion and separation from England.  Beyond its more mundane list of grievances – like anger at British denial of colonial free trade or the stationing of armed troops in the colonies – Jefferson grounded arguments for rebellion on high minded ideals.  His preamble contains some of the most quoted words in our history and the best known sentence in the English language.

Jefferson boldly asserts Enlightenment ideals that speak to the universal and eternal rights of humanity – ones that most philosophers of the time believed came from nature itself.  Not only that, his appeal begins with a firmly rooted notion that all of us are born of the same creative force.  Implicitly, Jefferson’s use of the words “Laws of Nature” and “Nature’s God” bestows on humanity both a common heritage and a common right to the privileges of mere existence.  These are not subtle Christian words.  They were and are words that transcend religion and politics.  They are words and rights that harken to the earliest days of existence – mysteries that resemble scientific laws but which are profoundly deeper and beyond physical proof.  Such natural rights simply are.

Like all Deists, however, Jefferson invoked human reason as the way to determine our natural rights.  Far from being a Christian statement of belief in a supernatural deity, Jefferson plainly states the universally spiritual view that humanity is an intrinsic part of the natural world.  We are not only a part of that world, we are subject to its laws.  And such laws, the Laws of Nature as Jefferson called them, are eternal and immutable ones that philosophers from Aristotle to Cicero to John Locke have attempted to define.  Jefferson relied upon the thinking of all three men.  The Laws of Nature for them were not only scientific laws, but also ones that are immanent and transcendent.  These laws are discovered and observed and are NOT of human creation.

As Jefferson eloquently wrote, Natural Law and Nature’s God grants humans intrinsic, immutable and unalienable rights.  God did not give such rights.  A King did not give such rights.  No Parliament or other group of humans granted such rights.  The Laws of Nature and Nature’s God – however we define them – granted those rights to the first humans, to the colonists of 1776, to each of us, and to future humans exploring far flung galaxies.  They are implicitly timeless.

And chief among such rights is the idea that nature creates without favoritism.  Reason alone suggests this truth.  We are born equal in our humanity, our fallibility, our mortality and our common privilege to life.  The random birth of one destined to be King grants him or her no greater status in the realm of existence than a farmer or laborer.  Each will live and die and each must be accorded the dignity that comes from simply being human.

If nature has given us life, than by reason and logic we have the sole unalienable right to it.  Such is a monumental but fundamental spiritual right for all people – one which we too often take for granted but which is foundational for all other rights.  If we have the right to our own existence, than nobody may own our bodies, our labor or our thoughts.  Nobody may legitimately kill us and nobody may limit our life in any way that is not subject to our consent.

And if we own our very lives, then by extension we own the freedom to live it as we choose.  Reason and logic tell us that natural law grants us absolute liberty to pursue our dreams, thoughts, hopes and abilities.  No King, no slaveholder, no religion and, indeed, no government may infringe upon the right of liberty without just cause to which we have consented.

And if we have – following the progression of logic from the rights of life to the rights of liberty, then we implicitly have the right, as Jefferson asserts, to the right to pursue happiness.  Such rights to happiness are not blank checks, however, for hedonism.

Jefferson was expressing centuries old philosophies revived during the Enlightenment that natural law designed humans to be social creatures.  We are not loners who act and live unto ourselves.

Since that is so, natural law compels us to use our reasoning abilities to best determine how to live peaceably with others since we cannot survive alone.  The pursuit of happiness for Jefferson meant that humans must increase the common good of all people so that the individual may then be happy.  This mutual cooperation, one I have before referred to as the moral imagination that guides our existence, is the only way by which humans experience lasting happiness.  In other words, for Jefferson and others, the right to pursue happiness is a spiritual and cooperative right – one that demands my concern for your well being in order to realize my own.

And it is for that reason that Jefferson asserted this unique right.  Others, like Locke, had asserted the rights to life, liberty and property.  But Jefferson clearly understood that we must be allowed to mutually secure the common well-being if we are to pursue happiness – including the ownership of property.  If we fail to secure the common well-being, or if one person or group of persons prevents the common well-being, than the pursuit of happiness for everyone is also prevented. The Laws of Nature are defied.

It is in many ways ironic that Thomas Jefferson wrote such a spiritual and moral document.  Like many of us, he was all too human.  While he stated a belief in the duty to work for the common good, he often acted in ways that were selfish.  He spent his life in debt due to lavish personal indulgences.  And, as one who penned the famous words that all men are created equal, he owned many African slaves, treated them as his personal property and abused them to the extent that he used at least one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings, as his concubine.  Her six children, all believed to have been fathered by Jefferson, were also held by him as slaves.  Most other founders were no better and few objected to the flagrant assertion of the equality of all people while living in a land that sanctioned racial slavery.

Despite that overt hypocrisy, inconsistencies which were noted by members of the British Parliament, the document is not diminished in its moral or spiritual power.  Indeed, Abraham Lincoln said that Jefferson’s words are timeless – words that will echo through the ages as the voice of our human conscience demanding a more perfect world.  As Lincoln said of the Declaration, it is a “standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”

Lincoln clearly understood the Declaration’s eternal significance as an implicitly moral statement for all social movements – past, present and future.

In that regard, the Declaration has the moral and spiritual force of the words of Jesus, Gandhi, Mandela and other prophets. Rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness demand the logical complimentary rights to affordable health care, food, shelter and basic well-being.  It is a simple but too often overlooked fact that people cannot enjoy the natural rights of life and liberty unless they have the basic means to experience them.  Is one born truly free if one is born into poverty?  Is one born equal if one has little or no opportunity to improve, learn and grow?  Can one pursue happiness if he or she is denied the equal right to love and marry whomever one wishes?  Can one find happiness if the reality of racism and sexism still exist?  Natural Law does not insure an equality of outcomes, however.  Nature has determined that life is not and never will be fair.  But Natural Law implicitly demands an  equality of opportunity to all and that can only be realized by access to decent food, shelter, education, justice and healthcare.

Whatever force that created the universe and the human species – whether it be the Big Bang, evolution, God, Yahweh, Allah or all of the above – that force granted rights and privileges by the mere fact of initiating human life.  I exist.  Because I exist, I exist with dignity.  As a person with intrinsic dignity, I have the right to freely determine how I live and to live in a way that builds peace and happiness for society and myself.

These are the plaintive demands of medieval indentured servants, of African slaves, of persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, of women, of children, of the disabled, the poor, the sick, of gays and lesbians, of marginalized people everywhere.

Such truths of natural law and Nature’s God are self-evident not because they are derived from a theistic God – as many American Christians might assert – but because they emanate from nature, as Jefferson wrote.  However we might define nature, it is not something subject to definition by the Bible or any other Scripture.  Nature and its laws are vast, expansive, and mysterious but subject to laws that reason permits us to discover – laws such as gravity, thermodynamics, the evolution of species and interactive behaviors between humans.  These natural laws can be observed, predicted and explained.  Nevertheless, they are deeply spiritual in their mysterious origin, their timeless truth and their universality.

As a Deist who believed in a creator god of some unknown type but one who does not interfere in the affairs of the universe, Jefferson worshipped a natural and reason based system that was far removed from the pages of the Bible.  As he once said, “Question with boldness the existence of God, because if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.”  He believed only in the ethics of Jesus as he is famous for rewriting the Gospels to exclude all supernatural claims and acts of Jesus.  Nature’s God, as stated in the Declaration, is not the God of Abraham, Moses, or Christ.  Nature’s God, like natural law, is far more complex and, in many ways, appropriately not fully known.

The Declaration of Independence is one of the greatest documents of all time precisely because it is not a narrowly focused political or religious document.  It follows in a long history of spiritual statements about the worth of all persons.  It echoes the fundamental reason why churches like the Gathering exist and why we exist as individuals: we work and advocate for a more perfect world of equality, freedom and universal happiness.

Our calling, therefore, is to reject appeals to an American civic Christianity or religion that seeks to rewrite the history of 1776.  But, we are equally advised to embrace the clear spiritual words and ideas in the Declaration of Independence.  In its own way, it is a profoundly holy document.  We must treat it and honor it in that spiritual light.