Each July 4th Americans have the chance to celebrate something new in human history, a nation grounded wholly in liberty. The transcendent values of liberty were not new. The same year that the Declaration of Independence was signed, Adam Smith wrote his famous masterpiece, The Wealth of Nations, which explained clearly how economic freedom makes us all wealthier. Smith’s countrymen, 450 years before our Declaration, signed the Declaration of Abroath to another King of England which explains: “It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honors that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”
The American colonies, now states after July 4, 1776, embraced the idea of human freedom. The charters of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Rhode Island explicitly protected liberty. Patrick Henry in Virginia dramatically expressed this yearning when he said: “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” The acquittal of editor Peter Zenger in New York told the world that honest political criticism was the right of every man. Throughout the colonies the spirit of freedom was flourishing, even if the declaration of that most basic right was not formally stated.
Our Declaration has roots in the faith of Christians and Jews. In Jewish lore, it is said: “When a beggar crawls down the darkest alley in the world, he is preceded by a company of angels singing ‘Make way! Make way for the image of the Lord!’” St. Paul writes that we are neither “Free nor slave…but one body in Christ.” Liberty fulfills the Bible and early Americans believed that the Hand of Providence was guiding them. One salient product of combining liberty with faith is that early America welcomed and protected Jews. The first page in a 1933 book by the American Jewish Committee on Jews in Nazi Germany quotes verbatim the profound philo-Semitism of the Founding Fathers.
The success of human liberty, these American patriots warned, required a religiously serious people. No democratic republic, however thoughtfully constructed, would work without the anchor of transcendent moral purpose. The men who signed the Declaration of Independence fully grasped that connection. So when the Declaration states - “…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…” - American liberty is linked to the God of Jews and Christians. Why does America appear to be the last true bastion of liberty among the major nations of the world? Sociologists and political scientists can guess, but religiously serious Americans know: the anchor of faith is sure and strong. According to a USA Today poll, church attendance in America is far greater than in Western Europe and that gap is growing. Freedom also has much more resilience in America than in Europe. Are there any “Tea Party” movements in France or in Britain or in Germany? No. Instead the void of widespread agnosticism has created an emptiness which demographic suicide and rough Islam naturally fills. Liberty is poisoned and grows very ill when it is held only in the mind and not in the heart and soul as well.
Finally, the idea of liberty requires clear, unequivocal declaration. It is no accident that the greatest literature of man is often connected to great moral purpose. The Book of Job is hauntingly beautiful as are the Psalms and the Parables of Christ. The wartime speeches of Churchill inspire us still, while the dull drivel of Nazi and Soviet propaganda during the Second World War reads awfully today. When Jefferson’s pen guided the collective effort which produced the Declaration of Independence, the brief document renders exquisite prose. This is no suffocating tome like Das Kapital or Mein Kampf. It is, instead, concise and clear.
Great science is proven by eloquence, by simple and true expressions of how the physical universe works. Great wisdom is the same. The full flowering of freedom in the life of a people is incredibly complex. (This drives Socialists crazy, because the “planning” in billions of daily private interactions is not “central” or “government,” but much richer and deeper than any bureaucrat or professor could ever grasp.) The guiding principles of freedom, however, are short and sweet. Our Declaration of Independence reflects the history of American colonies, the heritage of faithful peoples, and the strong and short testament to timeless ideas of freedom. It is a Declaration once embraced by a world in chains, but now forgotten or despised by people who love a Pavlovian fix more than freedom. The world, today, and even much of our land, lacks people like Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin, signers of a document which could have been their death warrant, Our Declaration is just as true now as in 1776, but it is unheard and unheeded by a race of man indifferent to the truth.