Live Free Or Die: America (and the World) on the Brink (2 page)

BOOK: Live Free Or Die: America (and the World) on the Brink
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While President Reagan is correct that freedom has been rare historically, it is at the crux of our own founding. It is who we are and what we've always been. It is a major part of our uniqueness. The colonists came to this land in search of religious and political liberty, and
they established free, self-governing colonies. They eventually broke from the British not as rebels or revolutionaries but to recapture the freedom that Britain had previously afforded us through its “benign neglect” of the colonies. After the War of Independence, they were determined to form a government under which they could prosper as a free people. Throughout our history, preserving our liberty has been the bond that has united us as a people. Our ancestors sacrificed their lives to ensure they and their descendants would live in freedom.

I now want to take a closer look at why America is exceptional. Let's review how the colonists organized themselves into free, self-governing societies and the founding generation built freedom principles into our founding documents.


America's experience with democratic rule and consent of the governed long predated our formal break with Britain and our independence. This rich history of liberty was until relatively recently engrained in our body politic, and both major political parties were committed to the tradition. It was in that context that outgoing President Reagan noted the assaults on liberty that were routinely occurring in the United States, and reminded Americans of this nation's greatness and why reinvigorating its dedication to liberty was imperative if America was to remain exceptional. President Donald Trump has now taken up the mantle of defending America's liberty, reinforcing her greatness, and reigniting her entrepreneurial energy. Both Reagan and Trump are heirs to a legacy of freedom that began with the colonization of this land.

In 1620, the passengers of the
reached the New World five hundred miles north of their intended destination and outside the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company, from which they had obtained a land patent permitting them to form an English colony. The uncertainties of being remote from a higher government authority motivated
them to establish their own government, though they pledged continued loyalty to the British crown.
While still aboard the ship, forty-one of the 102 passengers signed the Mayflower Compact, agreeing to establish a colony dedicated to God's glory and the advancement of the Christian faith.

This was a “covenant” to combine themselves “together in a civil body politic.” As self-governing people, they would “enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.” A century and a half before the Declaration of Independence affirmed the “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal,” these bold pilgrims bound themselves together as equal men to form their own civil government.
“What was remarkable about this particular contract,” writes historian Paul Johnson, “was that it was not between a servant and a master, or a people and a king, but between like-minded individuals and each other, with God as a witness and symbolic co-signatory.”

This compact for self-governance was modeled on church covenants that empowered congregations to choose their ministers—a power that came directly from Jesus Christ, not derivatively from a higher church authority.
This pattern of government by social contract was common throughout the New England settlements. In
The New England Clergy and the American Revolution
, Alice Baldwin demonstrates “how the New England clergy preserved, extended, and popularized the essential doctrines of political philosophy, thus making familiar to every church-going New Englander long before 1763 not only the doctrines of natural right, the social contract, and the right of resistance but also the fundamental principle of American constitutional law, that government, like its citizens, is bounded by law and when it transcends its authority it acts illegally.” Baldwin maintains there is “a direct line of descent from seventeenth-century philosophy to the doctrines underlying the American Revolution and the making of written constitutions.”

John Winthrop, captain of the Puritan ship
, articulated the Puritans' mission in his sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” which includes this now-famous passage: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”
Thomas Hooker also articulated the connection between covenantal Christianity and governance—that early church governments modeled democratic government—in his Fundamental Orders of Connecticut in 1639: “[W]ell knowing where a people are gathered together the word of God requires that to maintain the peace and union of such a people there should be an orderly and decent government established according to God, [we] do therefore associate and conjoin ourselves to be as one public state or commonwealth; and… enter into combination and confederation together, to maintain and pursue the liberty and purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus which we now profess….”

Likewise, theologian John Cotton of Massachusetts wrote in 1645, “It is evident by the light of nature that all civil relations are founded in covenant…. [T]here is no other way given where a people… can be united or combined together in one visible body, to stand by mutual relation, fellow-members of the same body, but only by mutual covenant….”
Rhode Island also based its political governance on church covenantal doctrine. Its charter stated that its government should be “democraticall, that is a government held by the free and voluntary consent of all, or the greater part of the free inhabitants.”

During this period, observe Peter Marshall and David Manuel, the people “were beginning to discover a basic truth which would be a major foundation stone of God's new nation, and which by 1776 would be declared self-evident: that in the eyes of their Creator, all men were of equal value.” It was when “we began to become aware of ourselves as a
, a body of believers which had a national identity as a people chosen by God for a specific purpose: to be not just ‘a city
upon a hill,' but a veritable citadel of Light in a darkened world…. Americans were rediscovering God's plan to join them together by His Spirit in the common cause of advancing His Kingdom. Furthermore, they were returning to another aspect of His plan—that they were to operate not as lone individualists, but in covenanted groups.”

As you can see, our Constitution didn't arise in a vacuum. The framers sifted through and borrowed some of the greatest ideas for constitutional governance from Athens, Rome, Locke, and Montesquieu. But they also called upon the ideas of social contract and representative government that had developed in their churches from the time of their early colonization of this great land.


The early American colonists were overwhelmingly Christian, but some academics downplay the importance of their faith, claiming America's founding documents were grounded more in secular enlightenment principles than in Christianity. By the time our nation was founded, these scholars claim, the people's religious spirit had given way to secular ideas sweeping over from Europe. While it's true that religious fervor waned in the beginning of the eighteenth century, America experienced a profound religious revival beginning in the 1730s called the Great Awakening, when the fiery sermons of evangelical preachers like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield rekindled the people's passion for Jesus Christ. This evangelical ethos continued through the Revolutionary War and our founding period. “The essential difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution,” notes Paul Johnson, “is that the American Revolution, in its origins, was a religious event, whereas the French Revolution was an anti-religious event. That fact was to shape the American Revolution from start to finish and determine the nature of the independent state it brought into being.”

University of Dallas professor M. E. Bradford extensively
researched the religious preferences of the signers of the Declaration and Constitution and discovered that the great majority of them were devout Christians. Fifty-two of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration and the vast majority of the signers of the Constitution were churchgoing, orthodox Christians.

Admittedly the religious beliefs of some high-profile founders are hard to pin down. For example, Thomas Jefferson may have been a Unitarian, as he believed in a superintending God even if he doubted the deity of Christ. And while Benjamin Franklin may have been a Deist at some point in his life, some of his actions contradicted the core Deist belief that God created the universe and then left it to its own devices without his supervision. Franklin, at a difficult point during the Constitutional Convention, called the delegates to prayer, and in the prayer asserted that God governs the affairs of men. This would have been pointless had Franklin believed in the noninterventionist god of the Deists. “I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men,” said Franklin. “I therefore beg leave to move—that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and tis blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that service.”

Though Jefferson wrote the initial draft of the Declaration, it was thoroughly edited by a congressional committee chaired by the pious John Adams, resulting in some eighty edits and the deletion of almost five hundred words.
Jefferson later admitted he was not seeking to articulate his personal beliefs but to draft a corporate statement of Congress “intended to be an expression of the American mind.”

While I believe the evidence shows that the Christian worldview played the dominant role in the creation of America's founding documents, there's no question Enlightenment ideas were also an influence. Beyond just getting our history straight, the reason this matters is that leftists credit secular Enlightenment ideas for our freedom tradition.
They incorrectly see the Christian religion as authoritarian and incompatible with political liberty. If that's true and if our Christian faith and values were not instrumental in developing our liberties, then leftists have one more argument against preserving our traditional values and demonizing people of faith.

But the founders saw no contradiction between faith and reason, and I certainly don't, either. “For most of them, the Bible and plain reason went hand in hand, moral example for moral example,” writes Michael Novak. “Even for those few (such as Thomas Paine) for whom common sense and the Bible were antithesis, plain reason led to belief in God…. Far from being contrary to reason, faith strengthens reason. To employ a poor analogy, faith is a little like a telescope that magnifies what the naked eye of reason sees unaided. For the founders, it was evident that faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob magnifies human reason, encourages virtue, and sharpens a zest for liberty.”

Similarly, historian Wilfred McClay argues, “It might seem logical to us today that there would be a necessary incompatibility and antagonism between the passionate Bible-based Protestant religious faiths of colonists like Edwards and the methodical new science embraced by the likes of Franklin… but this was not quite the way things looked to Americans of the time. In the Anglo-American world of the eighteenth century, the spirit of Protestantism and the spirit of science were not seen to be in fundamental conflict with one another. Belief in some version of the biblical God and belief in an ordered and knowable universe were not seen as at all incompatible.”


Admittedly, I talk about the Constitution a lot. So I want to explain here in a little more depth why I think it is such an amazing document and how it gave rise to this nation's unrivaled greatness. What is so unique about our Constitution? The British, from which much of
our freedom tradition is derived, do not have a formal, written constitution but rather a system that developed organically over centuries. British prime minister William Gladstone recognized this when he called the British constitution “the most subtle organism which has ever proceeded from progressive history.”

Our Constitution was different. It didn't evolve over centuries but was brilliantly crafted by a gifted group of men who were learned students of religion, history, political science, and comparative government. They understood the important distinction between pure democracies and republics, and they were aware of the shortcomings of the Athenian and Roman constitutions. Furthermore, as shown by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay in the
Federalist Papers
, they knew what had caused the failures of the Articles of Confederation, the colonists' first stab at a constitution when they broke from Britain. The drafters of the Articles were jaded by their experience with the British monarchy. They were so fearful that a robust federal government would lead to tyranny that they created a loose confederation of states with a central government so weak that it lacked a federal judiciary or the authority to tax citizens or raise an army. In trying to maximize their liberties, they imperiled them by not giving the federal government sufficient power to protect citizens against domestic and foreign threats.

BOOK: Live Free Or Die: America (and the World) on the Brink
7.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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