What does God have to do with the Fourth of July? A lot, actually.
The Fourth of July is also called Independence Day. It is the anniversary of America’s birth as an independent nation. That birth was announced by the Declaration of Independence. But God is all over the Declaration of Independence and was, it would seem, an important part of the thinking that informed the Declaration.
The Declaration is an argument for American independence. It explains the reasons why the founders concluded that they were forced by circumstances to break away from Great Britain. From its very first sentence, the Declaration makes clear that its argument involves an appeal to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.”
Contemporary secularists will observe that this God is not clearly the same as the God of Christian revelation. Fair enough. But there is more. The Declaration goes on to claim that the purpose of government is to secure the rights of human beings. It also identifies the source of those rights. It says that “all men are created equal,” and that they are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” especially those to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” According to the Declaration, human beings are the product of creation and not chance, and they are created with rights that governments must respect.
Of course, a “Creator” God sounds more like the God of Christian revelation. Still, contemporary secularists sometimes contend that the founders were not Christians but deists. They believed in a God, but a distant God, one who created the world and ordered it, but beyond that does not have much to do with us. This claim is overblown. Perhaps some of the leading founders were deists, but it certainly was not the dominant view. The founding generation was predominantly Christian and indeed Protestant. Still, we can concede to the contemporary secularist that the “Creator” God of the Declaration’s second paragraph might be no more than the deist’s God.
But the Declaration has still more to say about God.
In its last paragraph, the authors of the Declaration, the representatives of the people of the United States, appeal “to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude” of their “intentions.” So the God of the Declaration, it turns out, is not all that distant from us. He must take an interest in human affairs, since he is concerned with the rectitude or moral quality of people’s intentions.
Finally, in the concluding sentence of the Declaration, its authors, speaking on behalf of the American people, and knowing the dangers which they will encounter in trying to make good their claim to independence, pronounce their “firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.” The God of the Declaration, then, not only created us, gave us a moral law, and takes an interest in the moral quality of our actions. He also rules the world providentially, perhaps intervening in human affairs on behalf of what is right and just.
Belief in God–a righteous and powerful God, a God who rules the world and who judges not just our acts but even our intentions–seems to be inseparable from the Declaration of Independence and the political culture, the public mind, that produced it. The founders could not assert their freedom without appealing to this God. In order to keep that freedom, let us continue to appeal to Him. Let us seek to understand Him and the nature of what he has created, to treat it according to the law He has made, to purify our intentions, and to depend on the protection of His providential care.
Happy Fourth of July!