Today is the day, of course, when we celebrate the formal adoption of the Declaration of Independence. And yet this year it comes at a troublesome moment in American politics. In just a few weeks the Republican and Democratic parties will be holding their national conventions. The Republican Party is poised to nominate a demagogue as its candidate for president, the streets are likely to be filled with violent protests, and the Republican Party may very well self-destruct. This, coupled with the chronic social and economic problems that have increasingly plagued the nation bodes ill for the future of the republic. What many of us have taken for granted as the American way of life seems to be coming to an end.
Our end is just. What many do not realize is that when we declared our independence form Great Britain we entered into a tacit covenant with God. Almost everyone is familiar with the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence. Almost no one has read the last paragraph. There, after having stated the basic principles of government and delineated King George’s “long train of abuses and usurpations,” the Declaration went on to state that the Continental Congress, “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,” declares our independence. It then concludes by saying, “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
The statement, “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,” amounts to an oath. It fits the definition in the Westminster Confession of Faith of a “lawful oath”: “. . .the person swearing solemnly calleth God to witness what he asserteth, or promiseth, and to judge him according to the truth or falsehood of what he sweareth” (WCF, XXII.1). By “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world” we were doing exactly that.
But what did we assert or promise? The Declaration says that we are appealing to God “for the rectitude of our intentions.” We are calling God to witness that our intentions were right and proper. What is implied in this is that 1) the reasons stated in the Declaration are the real reasons we were declaring our independence; and 2) those reasons were right and proper, i.e., they were in accord with “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” That means that if we succeeded in winning our independence we would proceed to establish a government that would secure “the unalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
To achieve these ends we proposed to fight “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.” We were, in effect, asking God to give us victory on the condition that we were acting in good faith to achieve the ends stated in the Declaration. In other words, we had entered into a tacit covenant with God – we swore to create a government that would respect people’s rights in return for God giving us the victory.
And God did indeed give us victory. No less than Benjamin Franklin could acknowledge at the Constitutional Convention several years later that during the War for Independence, “we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection,” and that “all of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending providence in our favor” (Madison’s Notes, June 28, 1787). We won our independence having fought the greatest military power on earth at the time.
And yet we did not live up to our end of the covenant. In spite of having declared that “all men are created equal,” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” we failed to apply that principle to African-Americans. After years of controversy over the slavery issue the U.S. Supreme Court tried to settle the issue once and for all in its decision in the Dred Scott case of 1857. Writing for the majority Chief Justice Roger B. Taney went so far as to assert that African-Americans were not included in the “all men” who were “created equal,” and that “they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.” It was a clear and direct violation of the covenant, and God’s judgment was not long in coming. Within four years America was engulfed in a bloody Civil War in which a total of 620,000 soldiers on both sides lost their lives. Near the end of the war President Lincoln could proclaim, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” (Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865).
And yet today we have gone one step even further. In 1962 the Supreme Court handed down another decision with disastrous consequences. This was the case of Engel v. Vitale, the New York Regents’ Prayer Case. The New York State Board of Regents had composed a brief prayer to be recited in public school classrooms. The prayer read as follows: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.” The prayer was brief, non-sectarian, and strictly voluntary. Nevertheless the Court ruled that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Admittedly there is a difficult church / state issue involved in having a prayer composed by a government agency recited in a public school classroom. In fact, the question might be raised as to how the state can conduct a program of public education without getting entangled in religious and moral issues. Such a program of education will either have to be implicitly atheistic or else amount to little more than vocational training. But in this case the Court’s decision had the practical effect of abolishing even the most rudimentary forms of civil religion, and making the government, for all practical purposes, atheistic. The government, as the government, could no longer recognize the existence of God at all, let alone acknowledge a covenant with Him. This was not simply another breach of the covenant; it abrogated the covenant altogether.
“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Gal. 6:7). Again, the judgment of God was not long in coming. Within just a few short years President Kennedy was assassinated, the U.S. became mired in a no-win war in Viet Nam, our cities were torn apart by race riots, and the nation’s youth turned to drugs and promiscuous sex.
God had indeed withheld His blessings from America’s educational system. A whole generation was given a thoroughly secularized education, and the foundations of public morality were eroded. “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful . . .wherefore God also gave them up . . .” (Rom. 1:21-24). Today we have legalized abortion (another violation of the covenant), a high divorce rate, single-parent families, same sex marriage, openly practicing homosexuals in the military, women in combat roles, and “transgender” people free to use the public restrooms of their choice. Mass murders have become more frequent, and once again we are facing a drug epidemic. It is hard to imagine a society more dysfunctional than ours, and it is a sure prescription for an authoritarian government.
President Lincoln was certainly right when he quoted in Psalm 19:9 in his Second Inaugural: “. . .the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”