These are stirring and familiar words from The Declaration of Independence:
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.
Along with enjoying our sparklers, hanging out Old Glory and gathering around our grills, we do well to read Mr. Jefferson’s famous words all the way through.
It is good to read—or to hear; it’s great oratory--The Declaration of Independence if for no other reason than to be reminded of what the shapers of this nation sought. They were not seeking blind obedience to an unchangeable set of rules. They weren’t after a might-makes-right mentality (in fact, they were trying to get away from that one with the British). Instead, they sought an opportunity to be thoughtfully self-governing, rather than exploited by a richer, stronger nation who saw, in the colonies’ resources, much that could benefit Britain—if only the colonists could be managed.
Well, they couldn’t be managed. The colonists were driven by a dream. But not a fanciful dream: Jefferson says, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.”
The Declaration shows us that even before the United States was the United States, there was a hope that here, in this land, there would be the option for self-governance and the option for freedom to live as men and women chose.
In these times, a certain kind of conservative Christianity and a certain kind of American politics seem strangely wedded to each other. A few years back, Newsweek ran a cross-wrapped stars-and-stripes on its cover. And “God bless the United States” has become the de rigueur tag line to end all political speeches, the way a preacher ends a sermon with “Amen.”
I’m sure that, in honor of the Fourth, some will raise glasses to toast the Supreme Court’s ruling, as I will. But others will wring hands and claim that both God’s word and the Constitution have been besmirched. Indeed, Bobby Jindal has already announced that the ruling “will pave the way for an all-out assault against the religious freedom rights of Christians who disagree with this decision." And the fundamentalist Christian, American Family Association put out a statement saying “There is no doubt that this morning’s ruling will imperil religious liberty in America….” This is, of course, unlikely in the extreme.
And though I never thought I’d be favorably quoting Jeb Bush, his response to the Supreme Court ruling seems to me to be consistent with the vision espoused by Jefferson. Bush wrote, “In a country as diverse as ours, good people who have opposing views should be able to live side by side.”
That seems to me to underscore the deeper meaning in The Declaration. If Jefferson was declaring our need for independence from Britain, he was also underscoring our interdependence with one another.
John F. Kennedy spoke of our interdependence when he addressed the United Nations with these words in 1961: “Never have the nations of the world had so much to lose or so much to gain. Together we shall save our planet, or together we shall perish in its flames.”
Martin Luther King, in his address “Beyond VietNam” given at Riverside Church in New York in 1967, knew our interdependence was crucial to our future when he said, “We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.”
And Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence itself, warns us of what happens when we are not aware of our interdependence: “…all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
The Declaration calls us to live a common life with one another, promoting each other’s “Safety and Happiness.” The challenge to do so and the opportunity remain ours.