This July Fourth I want to utter a prayer not only for our founding date but also for our founding document — the Declaration of Independence.
A famous Bible scholar once said that one of the reasons it is so hard to read the Bible with all our critical faculties intact is that we read it with what he called, “sacred inattention.” What he meant was that we tend to shut down our brains when we are confronted with something old and familiar and important. The same sacred inattention has prevented us from reading the Declaration of Independence with unclouded spiritual eyes. Our brain fuzz in reading the most important document of American democracy begins with the very first line of Thomas Jefferson’s preamble to his masterpiece of human freedom:
“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.”
Now before we use some sacred attention to see what is wrong with this greatest of all American sentences, we must remember that although the text was written by Jefferson, it was written in collaboration with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman. Jefferson’s text was then presented for changes on June 28 to the entire Continental Congress, which cut out a quarter of it and made many changes. Although no notes remain from Jefferson on his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he often said that the final version had “some mutilations,” referring to all the changes imposed upon it by others. My prayer concerns one of the changes.
It is reported that Jefferson’s first version of his preamble read, “We hold these truths to be sacred... ” — not “We hold these truths to be self-evident ...” It may be true that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” I believe with all my heart and soul that this is indeed true, but it is not self-evidently true. A self-evident truth is something that we know to be true without any needed proof, and the creation of people by God definitely requires proof. As it stands, the Declaration of Independence’s most important sentence makes no sense.
It is simply not self-evident that God made us and gave us rights. That is a religious belief and that is the belief that Jefferson wanted to use as the cornerstone of American democracy. He wanted to say that in America the state is not sovereign, only God is sovereign. Therefore when the state contradicts the laws of God, the state is wrong and must be changed. Jefferson’s massive and powerful belief was that our rights come from God, not from the state.
I believe it is God’s will that we be free to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These rights are therefore sacred, not self-evident.
We don’t know how or why “sacred” got changed to “self-evident.” Perhaps the fear was that people would get the wrong idea from Jefferson’s original wording. Perhaps they would think that here in America you had to profess a certain faith in order to have civil rights. Although several states, such as Massachusetts, did have official state religions into the mid-1800s, Jefferson’s God was not a sectarian God. His God was a God of all people and all religions. Jefferson was kind of a deist. His idea of the sacred nature of our democratic rights was meant to keep the state from becoming an idol or a tyranny. Jefferson was the one who first wrote about the wall of separation that must always exist between church and state, so that, free of one single national faith, Americans would be free to find a faith or no faith that spoke to each of their needful hearts.
So however it was done and whoever did it, Jefferson’s spiritually powerful and coherent vision of the foundations of American democracy was mangled into a contradictory sentence that, despite its power, makes no sense. Perhaps it is better this way. America does better when we look at the big vision of our destiny rather than the fine print of our institutions.
So this Fourth of July let us thank God for our sacred truths. Let us thank America for embracing them. Let us all resolve to protect them.