Ideas that inspire man to form a nation must first be planted within our minds like seeds to grow. But just because something grows doesn’t mean it bears good fruit, nor does it mean the seed planted was ever good in the first place. That, at least, is the view proclaimed by President Abraham Lincoln during an unprecedented period of calamity and conflict in his Gettysburg address:
“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
Conceived etymologically derives from an Old French term meaning “take into the mind, form a correct notion of.” But what precedes a nation’s conception? What or who forms good ideas in the mind of man? The answer for the Christian is God, who “fixed the borders of the peoples” and whose eyes saw “the unformed substance” of every human designed to establish those nations. As the Creator of the whole of the created order, God possesses the authority of the “blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.” It’s sometimes easy for Christians to overlook the implications of such a title, especially when words like “freedom” or “liberty” are not understood in their proper context. After all, “text without context can be a pretext” for any political agenda. The Christian faith compels us to recognize that no nation or government, including those conceived in liberty, can exist unless permitted by God.
In the gospel of Matthew, Christ expressly claims “all authority in heaven and on earth.” That is both a spiritual and political assertion; governments are instituted among men by the will of our loving, just God. Like all things, God forms governments with a purpose, a design. As the apostle Paul explains in Romans 13, the government is “God’s servant for [our] good” who “does not bear the sword in vain.” This servant rewards those who do good and uses its sword to punish those who do evil.
This principle weighed heavy on the minds of the founding fathers before boldly proclaiming independence from the British crown. One year before America’s first birthday, the founders penned and adopted the “The Olive Branch Petition” to King George III, imploring him to grant them the privileges and rights they believed they were entitled to as his “Majesty’s faithful subjects of the colonies.” While showing respect for the King’s authority, the founders petitioned King George to correct the misconduct of his ministers, which they described as so “peculiarly abhorrent to the affections of your still faithful colonists, that when we consider whom we must oppose in this contest, and if it continues, what may be the consequences, our own particular misfortunes are accounted by us only as parts of our distress.”
Our founders patiently respected the authority of the English King as their sovereign, just as Scripture commands. Their frustrations, initially, were born out of the misconduct of royal ministers and the abusive acts of Parliament, which they hoped occurred without the King’s knowledge. Not so.
King George III refused to read their petition and, just over a month later, issued a proclamation declaring the American colonies in a state of “open and avowed rebellion.” The King called upon every officer of the English government and each member of the British military to “exert their utmost endeavours to suppress such rebellion, and to bring the traitors [the American colonists] to justice….” Shortly after the King’s declaration, Parliament passed the American Prohibitory Act, stripping the colonies of the Crown’s protection against foreign enemies, banning all trade with the colonists, and ordering the seizure of American ships. In short, Britain all but declared war on the American colonists for petitioning the King for his favor.
In response, our founders unanimously issued the Declaration of Independence, enumerating an exhaustive list of grievances “to a candid world.” Their grievances cannot fairly be explained as a complaint about taxation without representation. Rather, the King stood accused of “taking away our [the American’s] Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments: … suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.” Moreover, the King “abdicated Government here [in America], by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us … plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.”
The colonists declared independence in good faith after consultation with scripture. The declaration acknowledged the legitimate role of government on Earth. They were convinced, however, that the government’s role did not justify tyranny and that God did not will them to submit to wicked governance. And their convictions can be supported by Church tradition, specifically the writings of Church Father Saint Thomas Aquinas concerning sedition in Summa Theologicae. Aquinas, who developed what is widely known as the theory of Natural Law, maintained that the Bible permitted resistance to tyranny.
“A tyrannical government is not just, because it is directed, not to the common good, but to the private good of the ruler… there is no sedition in disturbing a government of this kind, unless indeed the tyrant’s rule be disturbed so inordinately, that his subjects suffer greater harm from the consequent disturbance than from the tyrant’s government,” Aquinas wrote. “Indeed it is the tyrant, rather, that is guilty of sedition, since he encourages discord and sedition among his subjects, that he may lord over them more securely; for this is tyranny, being conducive to the private good of the ruler, and to the injury of the multitude.”
It was before the Most High God Who precedes all nations, that the founders declared independence in “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.” After the founders won the Revolutionary War, they were tasked with developing a new government, a new sovereign, as scripture demanded. Whom does our Constitution acknowledge as America’s sovereign? The unprecedented answer of our founding fathers lies in our Constitution’s preamble: “We the People of the United States.” In other words, Americans now bear the “crown” and all its moral obligations and responsibilities before God.
Our Constitution provides the mechanisms for The People’s government to act according to God’s design. But the Constitution can only do so effectively when the heart of “The People” long for God. This is why John Adams famously wrote that “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Just as God precedes all nations, a heart for God is the predicate to self-government.
Self-government, in the proper Christian context, means Americans have the freedom to choose what is good for its own sake. But they also possess the obligation of self-control, to discipline themselves from choosing evil. American Christians pursue their God-given duties as the nation’s sovereign by following the counsel of John Jay, America’s first Supreme Court Justice:
“Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” Christians are not called to elect a leader merely because they claim the title of “Christian.” They are called to choose leaders who subordinate themselves before God by their actions.
This Fourth of July we must remind ourselves of the role we collectively fill as Americans, “We the People,” and our obligation to govern ourselves justly as the sovereign. But we should celebrate knowing that our Father in Heaven gave us an unprecedented opportunity to choose Him, and His will for our nation, just because we love him. Heavy bears the crown, but blessed are the faithful who wear it as God designed, for they will one day be given crowns to cast before the throne of the King of Kings.