On this day we celebrate the 240th birthday of our country. As we reflect on our history and heritage, let us also reflect on how our nation came to be, and the values underlying its founding. Indeed, let us consider the principle concepts that guided our Founding Fathers in creating this nation. As men grounded in an essentially Christian worldview, with a tradition of Judeo-Christian ethics and philosophy, these great statesmen were committed to the idea of liberty. And for them, liberty was not something that must be established by men. Indeed, it was just the opposite. Liberty was a God-ordained and God-given right of every human being. It was not a human creation at all. It was wholly divine in origin.
Our Founders accepted two principles as essential to understanding both human nature and the mechanics of human society. These principles are natural law and natural rights. Natural law means that all men have a general understanding of right and wrong. Moral law is universal because it comes from the Governor and Lawgiver of the universe. Men understand how they should behave themselves because God put this knowledge in each of us. Further, it was understood that there are natural rights, equally God-given, and that by these we perceive the expectations and privileges of men in society. It was understood that these are natural rights, given by God, and applicable to every man.
This is what the Declaration of Independence indicates when it says, “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.” It was understood as natural, just and true that all men have certain rights. These rights are natural rights. They are not given by society or by human agency. They come directly from God Himself, the Sovereign Ruler of the universe. The purpose of government is not to establish these rights (for it cannot, since they already exist). Rather, the purpose of government is to “secure these rights” and to protect them. Government is guardian of what God has given.
Notice that among these rights is the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to the pursuit of happiness. Historians and political scientists agree that studying the writings of the Founders clearly indicates that by “pursuit of happiness” they were especially referring to the right to own and protect personal property. And the right to property not only includes physical property, such as land or possessions, but also intellectual, spiritual and moral property. To illustrate this, let’s note the thinking of James Madison, the Founder largely responsible for drafting our Constitution.
In 1792 Madison wrote an essay entitled “On Property.” Madison clearly defined the natural right to property as much more than just land, possession or wealth. Indeed, he stated that property “embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right.” Thus, property includes your religious convictions, personal beliefs, and moral principles. Madison said that every individual “has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them.” In other words, one of the natural rights given by God, and to be protected by government, is the right to think and believe as you will, and to have the freedom to communicate your own opinions and beliefs to others. This right specifically (and most significantly) applies to religious liberty. Madison believed, as did our Founders in general, that the right to personal religious liberty, to believe as we choose and to be able to communicate that belief, is inviolate. Consider Madison’s own word in this matter, speaking of any person: “He has a peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.” Religious liberty is a natural, God-given right that no human being, as well as no society or government, has a right to deny or abrogate. For the Founders, to deny any man his natural rights, including religious liberty, was the basest form of tyranny.
It against the unnatural acts committed by the British Sovereign against natural rights that the colonists protested, and then sought independence from his tyranny. The understanding that we have natural rights is the bedrock on which this Republic is grounded. Yet, we live in a day when the concept of natural rights is a foreign idea to many. In fact, I wonder how many Americans today are even aware of the concept, much less understand it? How can we preserve that which we do not know that we possess?
Do these rights need preserving? Indeed, yes! Government does not establish these rights. They are given by God, not man. Yet a wicked regime can deny and violate the good things that God has given us. The Founders believed that governments were “instituted among men” to secure and preserve our God-ordained rights. But they also understood that a tyrant could oppose and forbid that which the Almighty has granted.
On May 14, 2016 Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas gave the commencement address at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Consider a portion of his address: “America’s Founders and many successive generations believed in natural rights. To establish a government based on the consent of the governed, as the Declaration of Independence makes clear, they gave up only that portion of their rights necessary to create a limited government of the kind needed to secure all of their rights. The Founders then structured that government so that it could not jeopardize the liberty that flowed from natural rights. Even though this liberty is inherent, it is not guaranteed.”
Notice Justice Thomas’s words, “it is not guaranteed.” Our natural rights can be denied. Are they? Do we see this happening in America? Unfortunately we do. For example, do you remember the baker in Colorado who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay wedding? The final ruling in this case was against the baker. Jack Phillips was told that his personal religious convictions did not allow him to violate the Colorado state law against discrimination based on sexual orientation. This ruling must be understood in a larger context. For no matter where one stands on the issue of gay marriage, there is an even more fundamental issue here—natural rights. Our natural right to religious liberty has been encoded in the Constitution in the First Amendment. There our right to worship and believe as we choose is assured us. Or so we are supposed to think. In the case of the baker, Jack Phillips, he was told that a state law actually trumps both the Constitution and his natural rights. How sad. More than that, how scary! When I heard this ruling, I trembled inside. I thought to myself, so we have come to this—natural rights are rejected and the tyranny of political correctness now rules.
I think Madison and the other Founders would be appalled at the judge’s ruling in this case. How can a man-made, state-instituted statute violate the natural rights of any man? It should not be. Remember what Madison said, any man “has a peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.” Yet the government, in particular the courts, are now saying that there is no “peculiar value” in a man’s religious beliefs, and that the state can deny a person a right to communicate and act on those beliefs. Jack Phillips is a prime example of this occurring. And unfortunately, he is not alone. There are similar cases being considered across our country. What we are seeing is the subtle, yet ongoing rise of tyranny!
So on this Independence Day, let us celebrate with great joy what occurred 240 years ago. Let us have our picnics, set off our fireworks, and enjoy family gatherings. But in the midst of our festivities, it might be wise to consider that the liberty we celebrate is not guaranteed. As long as we live in a fallen world where wicked men can still come to positions of power, our freedoms and our rights are at risk. Let us ponder this. And let us pray.
P.S. In 1787 the meetings of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia were held in secret. After the final deliberations were over, as Benjamin Franklin was leaving the building he was asked by a concerned citizen about what had happened inside. “Well, Doctor,” he said, “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” With no hesitation whatsoever, Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”