Updated: Jul 9, 2020
I cherish and revere the idea and ideals of America. The actual America, like individual human beings, is both marvelous and monstrous. Indisputably, America's contributions to the world are immense. Yet we remain deeply flawed. As I write this, our country is rocked by social upheaval decrying systemic racism with protests, looting, and violence in many of our cities.
Much has been said and is being said about how America's founding was racist, sexist, and prejudiced. How its professed freedoms were only granted to a few. How its founders were deeply flawed and hypocritical men who practiced slavery. There is truth in these criticisms, but are they the most constructive way to move forward?
The ideas in the Declaration were ideals - principles to strive for and upon which to found a nation. It is up to each succeeding generation to move society closer and closer to those ideals. Thousands died to end slavery. Thousands died to fight tyranny abroad. Thousands were hanged, dismembered and burned alive during Jim Crow before thousands more marched, protested, sang, wept, prayed, and brought about the changes of the Civil Rights Movement. We are a work in progress. Brutally so. However slowly and imperfectly we move forward, the Declaration serves as a North Star pointing us in the right direction.
On the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, President Calvin Coolidge gave a landmark speech that makes the case that the "golden apple" of the Declaration, as Lincoln described it, had its roots in the Judeo-Christian spiritual and religious zeitgeist of the day and that only this same wellspring can serve to move us forward. His counsel is remarkably applicable to our day, nearly 100 years later:
"No one can examine this record and escape the conclusion that in the great outline of its principles the Declaration was the result of the religious teachings of the preceding period.
"A spring will cease to flow if its source be dried up; a tree will wither if its roots be destroyed. In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man — these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We can not continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause.
"...the principles of human relationship which went into the Declaration of Independence... are found in the texts, the sermons, and the writings of the early colonial clergy who were earnestly undertaking to instruct their congregations in the great mystery of how to live. They preached equality because they believed in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. They justified freedom by the text that we are all created in the divine image, all partakers of the divine spirit.
"About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.
"Under a system of popular government there will always be those who will seek for political preferment by clamoring for reform. While there is very little of this which is not sincere, there is a large portion that is not well informed. In my opinion very little of just criticism can attach to the theories and principles of our institutions. There is far more danger of harm than there is hope of good in any radical changes. We do need a better understanding and comprehension of them and a better knowledge of the foundations of government in general. Our forefathers came to certain conclusions and decided upon certain courses of action which have been a great blessing to the world. Before we can understand their conclusions we must go back and review the course which they followed. We must think the thoughts which they thought. Their intellectual life centered around the meetinghouse. They were intent upon religious worship. While there were always among them men of deep learning, and later those who had comparatively large possessions, the mind of the people was not so much engrossed in how much they knew, or how much they had, as in how they were going to live. While scantily provided with other literature, there was a wide acquaintance with the Scriptures. Over a period as great as that which measures the existence of our independence they were subject to this discipline not only in their religious life and educational training, but also in their political thought. They were a people who came under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power.
"No other theory is adequate to explain or comprehend the Declaration of Independence. It is the product of the spiritual insight of the people. We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren sceptre in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshiped."
Much has been written about the decline of Christianity in America. Others have written about how Christianity is being replaced not just by secularism, but by post-Christian spiritualities. If Coolidge is right about the ideals of the Declaration being the pinnacle of human aspiration and Judeo-Christian spirituality is its prerequisite, "we the people" should carefully consider what other kind of world we will be creating if we abandon them.
Is Coolidge right about the relationship between religion and the ideas in the Declaration?
Are non-Judeo-Christian spiritualities or secularism coherent or compatible with the ideals of the Declaration? If so, how? If not, what is the likely outcome?