Op-Ed: Never, Ever Give Up On America
For many Americans, the celebration of Independence Day this year will be more subdued than usual. We are a resilient people, but the past few months in America have been among the most difficult in our history.
Over the past several days, many thoughtful, patriotic friends—and even some members of Congress—have quietly asked me if I think we may actually be reaching some sort of irreversible tipping point in America. Might we be nearing the end of this grand experiment in self-governance? Can we actually keep this constitutional republic much longer?
I have insisted now too many times than I can count in recent weeks—to restless friends, to cynical media and in Congressional hearings—that we could go a long way in resolving the current chaos if we would simply remember and act upon the central idea of our country.
A century ago, the great English writer G.K. Chesterton famously observed that “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence.”
That creed, that central idea, is what set us on course to become the freest, most powerful, most prosperous nation in the history of the world, and yet too many young people today (and even Joe Biden in his recent speeches) are unable to articulate it.
I believe Thomas Jefferson was divinely inspired when he drafted the Declaration, and particularly that eloquent second paragraph, which begins: ”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.”
We would all do well to take a pause today to consider those familiar words carefully.
First, what is a “self-evident” truth? As an old constitutional law professor of mine once said, “It is something you cannot not know.” Why? Because it is stamped indelibly into your mind and heart by Someone, that being your Creator. (In fact, in the first draft that Jefferson presented to his editorial committee of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston, this line originally read, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” Franklin suggested the final edit.)
And what have we declared is the first inescapable truth? “That all men are created equal.” It’s difficult to overstate the profound impact this phrase has had upon the development of history since it was written. It was radical and revolutionary and openly defiant to the British crown and to every previous king and authoritarian state. In this country, no man is sovereign over any other. We recognize no royalty here. We are all equal before a Holy God.
Importantly, the text does not say all of us are merely “born equal.” It specifies and proclaims that we are “created equal.” And because the Scripture that informed our founders makes clear in its first chapter (Gen. 1:27) that all human beings are made in the image of God, the authors of the Declaration knew their careful choice of words here would carry nation-shaping implications.
Since every individual shares the imago Dei that means that every single person has inestimable dignity and value which is wholly unrelated to the color of our skin, what zip code we live in, our intelligence or talents, or any other factor. Every person’s value is inherent, because it comes, not from a king, or the state or from any other person, but from God Himself.
Having established our equal position before our Creator, the founders then boldly declared the corollary truth that He (not the state) gives all of us the same unalienable rights that must never be taken away, but rather fought for and vigorously and righteously defended. Indeed, the very purpose of civil government (that is ordained and approved by our Creator, see, e.g., Romans 13) is to, as the second paragraph of the Declaration continues, “secure these rights.” Accordingly, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
This is the central idea of America, and has always been the key to our greatness and exceptionalism. No other nation had ever been founded on such truths, nor had any previous nation needed such a unifying doctrine. As Chesterton noted, “England is English, France is French, and Ireland is Irish,” etc. America was different from the start, and that was the beauty of it.
We grew in stature as a magnet for pilgrims of all ethnicities who yearned for freedom and opportunity. They came here to enjoy their unalienable rights and pursue happiness and contribute and assimilate into the giant melting pot of the American culture and DNA. While other nations of the world are built upon one ethnicity and one culture, our challenge and incredible opportunity has been the e pluribus unum part. To be successful and keep the republic, we’ve had to form and maintain not just one nation from a collection of disparate states, but one extraordinary culture out of many unique ethnicities.
God has blessed our fledgling nation because we have openly acknowledged Him and our foundational premise is based upon the principles that He established. And because our Creator is gracious and merciful, He has blessed us in spite of our terrible sins. We owe it to Him and to one another to continue perfecting our union and to work harder to see and to value one another as He does.
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial nearly 60 years ago, he said, “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”
We all have to acknowledge that the promise of our American creed has not yet been fully realized by everyone, and we should all resolve now to help make it happen. Even as we begin our 244th year, we are still a very young nation, and we are still experiencing growing pains. But the pain is always worth it.
In 1974, Ronald Reagan spoke at the first Conservative Political Action Conference, at another time in our history when turmoil and unrest caused many to question our country’s stability and future. His clarity, conviction and consistency still resonate today:
“We cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try to do so. The leadership of the free world was thrust upon us two centuries ago in that little hall of Philadelphia. In the days following World War II, when the economic strength and power of America was all that stood between the world and the return to the dark ages, Pope Pius XII said, ‘The American people have a great genius for splendid and unselfish actions. Into the hands of America God has placed the destinies of an afflicted mankind.’ We are indeed, and we are today, the last best hope of man on earth.”
Never forget that, never doubt it, and never give up on America.
Happy Independence Day.