The Irony of History, Part 2

Keeping in mind what I said yesterday about how I learned American history ...

This thing about our country being founded upon Biblical principles. The Declaration of Independence is a beautiful piece of work. “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 as I read the entirety of the document for the first time (I’m half ashamed to admit), and that with the research of the past two months behind me, my curiosity is aroused, to explore again from the Americans’ viewpoint what they felt was so terrible as to call for war. The document goes on to detail how they feel Great Britain broke faith with the colonies.

But that one sentence gives me pause. How does a Declaration of Independence jive with Romans 13?

“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’s sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.”

Bear in mind—this is from a man who avowed more than once, when told to stop preaching Christ, that a man should obey God rather than man.

Some might argue that the above passage refers to spiritual authority only—the hierarchy within the Church. I think the verse regarding taxes pretty much disproves that. It’s also interesting that we can infer from the passage that the proper duty of a civil government is to uphold good and punish evil. The rationale behind America’s Declaration of Independence is, to my understanding, that if a government ceases to do those things, the people have the right to rise up and throw off tyranny.

I can see how that passage could cause great division, however. A loyalist’s position is completely defensible from the perspective of “God appointed Britain to be our authority; therefore, we must submit to that.”

And yet God allowed a ragtag group of colonials to become a fledgling nation—against all odds, despite the fact that it wasn’t a resounding military win (the British actually won most of the last major battles in South Carolina, then had to abandon their outposts, one by one, because of supply and support issues, and Cornwallis surrendered to Washington a mere week before his reinforcements arrived).

Another thing about the opening sentence. American Christians tend to live as if God truly did create us with the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Life? Every breath we take is a gift of mercy and grace. There are no guarantees, nothing that says we are owed one minute more than the one we are in. (And this, to me, is a far more compelling reason to “live right” than the commonly spoken “Jesus is coming soon!” Not that I don’t believe He can … but we learned firsthand through the loss of a child that life can change in an instant in more immediate ways.)

Liberty? Humans are born slaves. The great lie in the Garden was that we can be our own masters (“you shall be as gods!”), when in reality the act of disobedience plunged mankind into servitude to sin and death. People are led to believe that freedom in Christ is unconditional, but Scripture is clear that it is not. We merely change our allegiance from sin in righteousness—but we remain servants, slaves. “And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” The apostle Paul referred to himself as “the bondslave of Christ.” We are bought with a price and we are not our own—and even the liberties we have as a Christian are subject to the weaknesses of our brothers. “Let him who is strong bear with the scruples of the weak.” (These principles are explored more fully in Romans 6, the last half of the chapter, and Romans 14-15.)

The pursuit of happiness? Where do we get the idea that the Christian life is all about being happy? Yes, we are blessed beyond measure—we gain joy and peace and contentment (among other things) as fruits of living a life surrendered to the control of God’s Spirit—but it’s clear as well that we are called to defer to and serve others more than we do ourselves.

But perhaps the intent of those who composed the Declaration of Independence was closer to the Scriptural ideal—“For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men—as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God.” In fact, I’ve often heard in the whole “separation of church and state” debate that the “Founding Fathers” felt that Christian truth was, itself, self-evident, and needed no clarification. They would likely be horrified to find that our interpretation of their writings meant an exclusion of Christianity from government, or that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” somehow meant we all have the right to do as we please and spend our time entertaining ourselves.

But then I come back to the verses framing the above Scripture, this time found in 1 Peter 2, and I find myself wondering all over again whether the writers of the Declaration of Independence were truly led of God, or just—seditious?

Edited to add: stay tuned for musings on adultery and the modern divorce rate, both then and now.


  1. It was once believed that happiness was dependent on virtue. We've separated that idea. I don't think the founders did. I think they had that old notion that the man who did good and sought to be virtuous and excellent, however imperfectly, was a man who would be happier for the exertion.

    Today, happiness takes on more hedonistic tone. "If I get everything I want, I'll be happy." Rather than, "If I become a better person and seek what is good, I wlil be happy."


  2. I'm with you Shannon and waiting for more of your mind!

  3. To dig deeper into some of this you'd have to look at Christian thiners like Locke and Calvin, and further back. Christian political ideas developed over a long period of time. I find them fascinating, but can't say I've done more than scratch the surface. Anyways, I think the idea that unjust rule can & should be resisted by ordinary Christians owes a lot to Calvin's biblical studies, and then Locke developed things a lot further.

    My impression is that the American Founders were a mixed bag - some Deists like Jefferson and Franklin (though naturally they'd absorbed a lot of Christian ideas), others devout Christians like John Adams. I recently read '1776,' which quotes George Washington talking a lot about Providence - clearly his God wasn't simply an uncaring watchmaker.

  4. Just to throw some SF into the mix - Gene Wolfe's The Book of the Long Sun really explores this question. The fighting happens in a city on a spaceship, but I got a strong feeling that he was asking questions about the American War of Independence and if such a war can be just.

    I remember my pastor saying that Calvin said that if the highest rulers were hopelessly corrupt, then Christians could turn to someone who was not corrupt but was in a somewhat lower position of authority, like a magistrate, who was then their *true* God-appointed leader.

  5. Interesting thoughts about Calvin and Locke, Elliot. I think I remember now hearing that Locke was a strong influence at that time ... of course, I didn't have a clue at the time what that meant.

    But Calvin, now ... hmmm ... will have to chew on that for a while.

    Thanks to everyone for your thoughts. (And I guess one of these days I'm going to have to break down and actually READ Gene Wolfe ... ;-) )

  6. Hey, how about a Book of the New Sun "Promise To Read" for 2007. And we can all blog about it.



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