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Parallels Between the Declaration of Independence and the Bible

“We hold these truths to be self-evident:  that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; 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…

 …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.”

 -          Declaration of Independence

  “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time.”

 -          Thomas Jefferson

 “And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God?”

 -           Thomas Jefferson

 

A.  God as Creator and Source of All Life

 “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” 

 -          Genesis 1:1 

 “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

 -          Genesis 2:7

  “…He himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.”

 -          Acts 17:25

The Bible very clearly says that God is the Creator, and the source of all life.  For Christians, these statements are so commonplace that it is easy to overlook their full significance.  Among other things, the idea that God is the Creator means that the universe has a definite beginning and a definite purpose, and is also a place of both physical and moral order, in which it is possible to talk about “self-evident” truths.  Furthermore, if God is the Creator, then any authority we humans have is delegated from Him.  These are areas in which the Bible’s worldview was shared by the founding fathers of our country, and this is the context within which the Declaration of Independence talks about “inalienable,” God-given rights. 

 

 B.  Created Equal

 “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.”

 -          Leviticus 19:15

 “Judge carefully, for with the Lord our God there is no injustice or partiality or bribery.”

 -          2 Chronicles 19:7

 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

 -          Galatians 3:28

“My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.  Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in.  If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”

-          James 2:1-4

“But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.  There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified [declared righteous] freely by his grace [unmerited favor] through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

-          Romans 3:21-24 (material in brackets, and underlining added)

In stating that “all men are created equal,” the writers of the Declaration of Independence obviously did not mean that all men (or women) were equal in intelligence, gifts and abilities, physical characteristics, character, personality, or any other outwardly observable characteristics.  The differences between individuals in all of these areas (and many others) are quite apparent.

However, there is one specific sense in which all of humanity is equal, and that is moral equality before God.  As Creator, God loves all of His creation equally, and does not make biased, arbitrary, or capricious judgments between individuals.  And the Scriptures exhort us in many ways to treat one another as moral equals (as God himself does), if we claim to be followers of God.  It may be a religious cliché to a certain extent to say that “everyone is equal at the foot of the cross,” but it is also true!  

 

C. Liberty

 “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work and take care of it.  And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it, you will surely die.’….

 Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done?’  The woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate.’

 So the Lord God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals!  You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.   And I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.’

 -          Genesis 2:15-17 and 3:14-15

 “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

 -          Deuteronomy 30:19

  “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord”

 -          Joshua 24:15

 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 -          Luke 4:18-19 (quoted by Jesus from Isaiah 61:1-2)

 “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.  Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

 -          John 1:11-12

 “…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

 -           2 Corinthians 3:17

 “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

 -          2 Corinthians 9:7

 “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

 -          Galatians 5:1

 “Here I am!  I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”

 -          Revelation 3:20

 “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

 -          John 15:13

 “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”          

 -          Patrick Henry, 1775

 As noted earlier on this site,[1] one of the most consistent themes of the Jewish and Christian scriptures (from Genesis all the way to Revelation) is that God allows all of humanity the freedom to choose between good and evil, and even between life and death.  The scriptures also intend that this concept of free choice should apply to many other decisions less important than life and death, including how much aid we should give to others in need (see 2 Corinthians 9:1-7.)   Although God passionately wants us to choose what is good, so that we may enjoy the abundant life He has planned for us, He does not interfere with our power to choose.

When the Garden of Eden was in its original, unspoiled state (in Genesis 2), man knew only good (eternal life, in intimate fellowship with God, in a peaceful, abundant garden.)  However, because God wanted us to love Him (which requires moral choice), rather than just slavishly obey Him, He left Adam and Eve one moral choice, which was to eat or not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  In other words, as long as Adam and Eve were willing to trust that God was acting for their good, and leave the knowledge of evil in His hands, they were free to continue knowing only good, and to enjoy paradise in the garden.

And God set things up this way despite knowing the severe consequences that would eventually follow:  that the frailty of human nature would eventually cause Adam and Eve to want to know both good and evil for themselves, leading to the rapid deterioration of even the earliest society that is recorded in Genesis chapters 4-6, and ultimately to the continual battle between good and evil that we see in the world today.

 Christian teaching says that God’s cursing of the serpent in Genesis 3:15 foreshadows the coming of Christ.  (Christ’s heel was ‘bruised’ in the process of crucifixion, but He crushed the serpent’s head – Satan – by paying the penalty a just God demanded for all of humanity’s sins.)  Therefore, from a Christian perspective, one can say that God valued human freedom so highly that He sent His Son to die on the cross to preserve it.

And if God values our freedom so highly, what authority does any human government have to take it away?

This is the moral and spiritual basis for saying that liberty is an “inalienable” right.

As Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death” speech makes clear, the founding fathers put the same high value on liberty that is found in the scriptures, understanding that there are times when liberty should be valued even above life itself.  In the Judeo-Christian moral tradition, the only thing that is valued higher than liberty is love (and love actually includes the concept of liberty, since true love requires free moral choice.)   In saying “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” Jesus made it clear that the highest expression of love is for one person to give up their life in order to defend the life and liberty of others.   This is the spirit in which many of the men and women in America’s armed services continue to serve today.

 It is important to note, however, that in giving us extensive freedom to make moral choices, God does not for a moment pretend that all moral choices are equally valid or equally meritorious.  Although, in His mercy, He will often rescue us from the consequences of bad moral choices once we have confessed our error and turned back to Him, He will rarely completely shield us from the consequences of our bad choices.  This is why the scripture warns us:

“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”  (Deuteronomy 30:19)

D.  Pursuit of Happiness

“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

 -          John 10:10

 “’For I know the plans I have for you’, declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’”

 -          Jeremiah 29:11

 “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.  We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.  If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith.  If it is serving, let him serve.  If it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.”

 -          Romans 12:4-8; see also similar passages in Ephesians 4:4-13, and the entirety of I Corinthians chapter 12.

 “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”

 -          I Corinthians 12:7

 “Again, [the kingdom of heaven] will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them.  To one he gave five talents[2] of money, to another two talents, and another one talent, each according to his ability.  Then he went on his journey.  The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more.  So also, the one with the two talents gained two more.  But the man who received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground, and hid his master’s money.

 After a long time, the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them.  The man who had received the five talents brought the other five.  ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents.  See, I have gained five more.’  His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!  You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.  Come and share your master’s happiness!’

The man with the two talents also came.  ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents;   see, I have gained two more.’  His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!  You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.  Come and share your master’s happiness!’

Then the man who had received the one talent came.  ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.  So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground.  See, here is what belongs to you.’  His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant![3]  So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed?   Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.’”

 -          Matthew 25:14-26 (material in brackets added)

“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

-          Ephesians 2:10

 “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain”

 -          Deuteronomy  25:4

 “The worker deserves his wages”

 -          Luke 10:7

 “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

 -          2 Corinthians 9:7

 “ …We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it.  On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to you.  We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help[4], but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow.  For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule:  ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’

 We hear that some among you are idle.  They are not busy; they are busybodies.  Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat.”

 -          2 Thessalonians 3:7-12 

 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.  You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

 -          Exodus 20:17

 “The U. S. Constitution doesn't guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself.”

 -          Benjamin Franklin

Many years after serving as the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson said in a letter to a friend that his primary inspiration for including the “pursuit of happiness” in his list of the fundamental rights of man came from the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus.  More specifically, in a letter dated October 13, 1819, to his close friend William Short, whom he sometimes referred to as an “adoptive son,” Jefferson wrote:  ““I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.”  At the bottom of this letter, Jefferson summarized the key points of Epicurean doctrine as follows:

 “Moral:

Happiness the aim of life

Virtue the foundation of happiness.

Utility the test of virtue…

Virtue consists in 1. Prudence 2. Temperance 3. Fortitude  4. Justice.

To which are opposed, 1. Folly. 2. Desire. 3. Fear. 4. Deceit.”

Thus, rather than defining “happiness” purely in terms of hedonism (as some might do today), Jefferson saw a connection between our private, individual dreams and aspirations (rightly focused), and both private and public virtue.

Although the exact phrase “pursuit of happiness” does not occur in the Bible, the more general concept of a connection between our individual hopes, dreams, and aspirations and public virtue is very well represented there.  This is evident not only in the various passages on spiritual gifts and the parable of the talents (all of which teach that God has given each of us unique gifts that are to be used for the common good), but also in the entire process by which God has created us and  drawn us into relationship with Him. 

Since we are His creation, He has given each of us gifts (and designed everything else about us) not only to express the deepest, and truest, and best parts of our own personalities and our own uniqueness and value to Him, but also to fit into His plans for the benefit of humanity and the advancement of the kingdom of God.

Jefferson was also a great admirer of John Locke, who considered “life, liberty, and property” to be the most basic rights of man.  The exact reasons why Jefferson made the change from “life, liberty, and property” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” when drafting the Declaration of Independence are unknown, but I consider this to be a very fortunate change for at least two reasons.  The first is that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” makes it clearer that the spiritual aspirations of individuals (as opposed to purely material aspirations) are among the fundamental rights of individuals which governments should protect.  Many commentators (both academic and otherwise) have speculated that this is one of the reasons why Jefferson made the change to “pursuit of happiness.”

The second reason why I believe it is very fortunate that Jefferson made the change from “life, liberty, and property” to “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” is that this change makes it very clear that America is a society founded on the premise of equality of opportunity rather than equality of results.   (To see how clear this really is in the Declaration’s text, consider that the Declaration guarantees only the “pursuit of happiness,” not “happiness” itself.)  Or as Benjamin Franklin put it, “The U. S. Constitution doesn't guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself.”

For the reasons that are summarized here, and are explained in more detail in the section of this site on the Role of Government, I believe that founding our society on the premise of equality of opportunity is both more consistent with the Bible and better for us socially and economically than attempting to focus on equality of results. 

It is also very much worth noting that the founding fathers did not view the right to “property” the same way many in America (especially on the political left) would interpret it today.  In referring to the right of “property,” the founding fathers meant primarily that the property an individual had acquired honestly should be safe from excessive taxation or other governmental interference, and also from other interference such as theft or foreign invasion.  The question of redistribution of property (i.e., the idea that each person somehow has a “right” to a certain amount of their neighbor’s property), never came up during the debates over either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.[5]  Therefore, the change from “life, liberty, and property” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence was accepted essentially without debate, rather than inspiring the extended debate that might occur today.

Although the Bible does not explicitly endorse any particular system of government, I believe that Biblical principles, taken as a whole, are more consistent with a society founded on the principle of equality of opportunity, rather than one that attempts to focus on equality of results.  The idea of limited government is explicitly endorsed in at least two passages (Deuteronomy 17:14-20 and I Samuel 8:11-17).,The idea of limited government is also implicitly endorsed in two other passages that state that a man has the right to the fruits of his own labor  (Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7), which implies (among other things) that taxes should be kept low.  The scriptures also contain strong warnings against idleness, even to the point of saying, “if a man will not work, he shall not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10).”  And finally, as will be explained in more detail in the section of this site on the Role of Government, the entire Biblical account of the history of Israel, given primarily in the first half of the Old Testament (the books of Genesis-Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, and 1-2 Chronicles), offers a strong implicit critique of authoritarianism.

Furthermore, the basic idea behind most schemes for the large-scale redistribution of income or other property (the idea that every individual somehow has a “right” to a certain minimum amount of income or property) also violates the tenth commandment (“You shall not covet…anything that belongs to your neighbor” – Exodus 20:17).   The fact that government-supervised redistributionary schemes have to be executed by force (or at the very least by compulsion) is also inconsistent with the fact that the church itself is an entirely voluntary organization, founded on the ideal that we should love God and one another (which is a voluntary choice.)   This strongly implies that the secular government should keep its use of compulsion to the minimum.

Finally, in the process of executing any forced or compulsory scheme of redistribution, the government will inevitably trample on those individual rights (to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), that both the scriptures and America’s founding fathers correctly consider to be our most fundamental and sacred rights.

The comparative economic and social performance of authoritarian socialism, democratic socialism, and free enterprise combined with the Judeo-Christian moral tradition will be discussed more fully in the sections of this site on Our Spiritual Heritage and the Role of Government.   However, a good summary of the both the economic and spiritual power of a society that really values equality of opportunity may be seen in the fact that immigrants from all over the world continue to make tremendous sacrifices to come to the United States, both legally and illegally.    

E.  Accountability of Government to God (and to the People)

 “Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them.  Be strong and very courageous.  Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.  Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it.  Then you will be prosperous and successful.”

-          Joshua 1:6-8

“When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, ‘Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,’ be sure to appoint over you the king the Lord your God chooses.  He must be from among your own brothers.  Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not a brother Israelite.  The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, ‘You are not to go back that way again.’  He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray.  He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. 

When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the priests, who are Levites.  It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his brothers or turn from the law to the right or to the left.  Then he and his descendents will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.”

-          Deuteronomy 17:14-20

 “’Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’  Jesus replied ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it:  ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” 

-          Matthew 22:36-40; note also that these two commands are taken from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18

“Jesus called them together and said:  ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you.  Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”

-          Mark 10:42-45

 The Biblical model of good government is one in which the ruler considers himself accountable to God for following all of the biblical Law.  Before the time of Christ’s earthly ministry, this meant the Law of Moses (which is contained in the first five books of the Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy, and is summarized in the Ten Commandments – Exodus 20:1-17.)   This is established in two major passages (Joshua 1:6-8, in which Joshua receives instruction for leading the nation of Israel into the promised land, and Deuteronomy 17:14-20, in which similar instructions are given to the people at large), and is also referenced in several other passages, such as King David’s charge to his son Solomon in I Kings 2:1-4. 

And since the greatest commandments of the Law of Moses are “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ it is clear that God intends for governments to serve and protect the people, in the noblest and least demagogic sense of those words.  As discussed earlier in this section, this idea  that governments should serve the people is also consistent with many of the other themes of the Bible, which discuss God’s granting of individual rights, gifts, and talents, and God’s plan that we should all voluntarily use His gifts to serve the common good.

Although in ancient times rulers were accountable only to God, the modern idea that governments should also be accountable to the people, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” is consistent with the Biblical idea that governments exist to protect the rights of individuals.  And, as will be discussed in more detail in the sections of this site on Our Spiritual Heritage and the Role of Government, I think the more than 200 years of history since the Declaration of Independence was written prove that having a government composed primarily of elected officials who are accountable to the people has proven to be the best way of protecting our individual rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

 F.  Conclusions

The Bible and the Declaration of Independence agree on many points:  that God is our Creator; that He has created us morally equal; that He has endowed each of us with “inalienable” rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which remain imperative and imperishable regardless of the pretensions of authoritarian governments; and that governments exist primarily to protect these sacred, God-given individual rights. There is also nothing in the Declaration of Independence’s statement of these fundamental human rights that is inconsistent with the Bible.  Therefore, although the Declaration of Independence was influenced to some extent by the Enlightenment and Greek and Roman philosophers, it can also fairly be said to represent a Biblical worldview.

And as Thomas Jefferson said, we would all do well to remember that God is the ultimate source of our liberties.  Whatever rights secular government grants, secular government can take away, but God intends that our most fundamental rights should rest on firmer ground.



[1] The material in this section is also covered in the First Principles section on “A Commitment to Individual Freedom.”

[2] In the ancient world, a “talent” was first a unit of weight (about 75 pounds) and later a unit of coinage.  Although I believe this “parable of the talents” is equally valid whether it is interpreted in this older, more literal sense or in a more spiritual sense, the modern use of the word “talent” to refer to an ability or gift is also derived from this parable.

[3] A careful reading of the parable indicates that the ‘wicked, lazy servant’ was judged for the attitude of his heart (i.e., for being wicked and lazy) rather than for his lack of financial or spiritual results.  The bad servant seems to have assumed that his master was evil simply because his master was wealthy (thus showing a partiality that is warned against elsewhere in the scriptures), and therefore to have made the unjust accusation that his master had “harvested where he had not sown.”  And because of the resentment in his heart, the bad servant did not make even the slight exertion required to put his master’s money in the bank.  In fact, the master had “sown” by trusting his servants with his money (or spiritual “talents.”)   The term “seed money” is still used in the business world today to refer to the money used to start up a new business venture.

[4] This refers to the right of ministers to be supported by the voluntary contributions of the church (see 2 Corinthians 9:7) while preaching the gospel.  Paul gave up this right in order to be a better “model” for the churches he was founding. 

[5] For a summary of the founding fathers’ views on the right of property see, for example, chapter six of Miracle at Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen.

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