Even in my lay-level reading of the document it seems that a general survey of the Declaration of Independence will provide us with at least two things to consider during this time of year - and especially during this time of our own nation's history.
These two things will provide (what I believe to be) some thoughtful considerations of which to be mindful.
So it's the 4th of July - Independence Day! What really was it from which we were declaring our independence? And by what authority were we doing so?
What Are We Independent From?
When reading through the text you'll notice one thing almost immediately. No one was declaring themselves, or the states they represented, independent from God.(1)
Let's consider the following:
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.
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
Had they been declaring themselves independent from God, they would not have done so on the basis of that very God who endows all men with certain unalienable rights. Nor would they have maintained their trust in that God to protect them in their endeavor of declaring their independence.
Secondly, they were by no means declaring themselves independent from any government at all.
Consider the following:
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
...It is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security...
They recognized that Government was a necessity for any people - even free people. While they were dissolving their alliance to the government of Great Britain, they were at the same time instituting new Government, "new Guards," - a new, separate government - but a government nonetheless.
Of course we must realize that while they had agreed that governments are instituted "among men," these governments are legitimate only to the point "to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them."
This brings us to that from which they were actually declaring themselves independent:
An ungodly government.
But in order to understand that fully, we must now simultaneously turn our attention to the second item of consideration...
By Whose Authority Are We Independent
On matter of history, they were declaring the colonies independent from the state-sovereignty of Great Britain. On matter of principle, they were declaring the colonies independent from a government that was so ungodly and perverse that it had habitually, over a long period of time, ignored and usurped the God-given rights of the people it was supposed to be protecting; and it had time and again ignored its public covenant with the people it was supposed to be protecting.
Consider the following infractions of law that the government (most notably the King) committed, which the founders addressed thus: "To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world":
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
So by what authority then were they declaring their independence?
Let's consider the following:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them...
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.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men...
Let me be clear that I'm not saying all the founding fathers (or all the signers of the Declaration of Independence) were orthodox Christians. I'm not saying that. Many of them were; but certainly not all of them.(2)
So some questions to ponder this Independence Day...
I am by no means calling for an American revolution. But what I am suggesting is that these questions need to be answered. And since they pertain to ethics, and since the Christian life is a life of Christian ethics, what ought to be the Christian response to these questions? And what ought to be our application of those responses?
There is much involved in understanding our independence and this day that we celebrate it. I know I myself have much room to grow in this area of knowledge. At the same time I think it's important we understand at least these two things: we were declaring our independence from a very ungodly government, and it was by and under the authority of the Christian God that we felt authorized and obliged to declare it.
May God give us wisdom and understanding in these things and the ability to act in a manner consistent with His Word and the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ - the King of Kings and Lord of Lords...
Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD...
(1) If historical context means anything, it's worthy of mention that it's not just any God to whom the Declaration is referring but the Christian God. As even in the Constitution (which I realize has advocates that it is by no means a Christian document), even it is dated "in the year of our Lord". Not even all of Europe at that time accepted the Christian calendar; so for them to do this clearly signified their understanding of God - that God is the Christian God.
(2) While there were certainly a couple unorthodox Christians and/or deists among the signers and forefathers of the country, you might be surprised to know how many of them were actual orthodox, fervent Christians. For a quick reference I recommend David Barton's site: WallBuilders. He even gives primary source information regarding the most irreligious of the founders of our country criticizing the absence of God in education.
(3) I don't know that the government which was finally established following the Declaration was ideal in its construction. There is debate even among Christian history scholars as to whether or not the Constitution was explicitly leaving out Jesus Christ and why, or whether He was implicit in the texts. See:
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