The United States began its career in the world with a founding document, the Declaration of Independence. This document was more than simply a propaganda statement that the United States would henceforth be a sovereign nation, no longer subject to the authority of the King of Great Britain.
The Declaration did more than declare independence; it justified the declaration by an appeal to a set of philosophical principles.
The question we need to ask ourselves today is this: Will the United States be able to continue to be a great nation if it repudiates the philosophical principles of the Declaration? This is not a merely academic question, for more and more we are repudiating these principles. This is especially true among our present-day cultural elites. But what the cultural elites hold today trickles down the social ladder, and is held tomorrow by rank-and-file Americans.
What, then, are the philosophical principles enunciated in the Declaration? Let me list some of them:
. That God exists, and is benevolent. God is directly mentioned three times in the Declaration, under a variety of names: “Nature’s God,” “Creator,” and “divine Providence. His benevolence is clearly implied when the Declaration says that God is the source of our rights, including the right to pursue happiness. Benevolence is further implied by the Declaration’s reference to the “protection” given by divine Providence.
2. That there are “self-evident” moral truths.
3. That God is at the basis of human rights — he has created all men equal and has endowed them with certain natural rights.
4. That one of these God-given rights is the right to life.
There are further principles having to do with the popular foundation of government and the right of revolution. But the above four principles are sufficient for my purposes here. Let’s look at our present-day erosion of belief in these five principles:
1. Belief in a benevolent God. Among our cultural/intellectual elites, atheism and agnosticism (an agnosticism that is the practical equivalent of atheism) are very widespread nowadays. Even more widespread is a kind of semi-atheism or near-atheism, found among Americans who are not quite willing to abandon all belief in God, but who in practice only barely believe. These near-atheists are for the most part either “liberal Christians” who have dropped much of what they consider to be the unnecessary baggage, both doctrinal and moral, of traditional Christianity; or they are non-Christians who tell us that they are “spiritual but not religious.”
2. The idea that there are any such things as moral truths, let alone self-evident moral truths, is widely rejected today — and not just among our intellectual elites but among our young adults. Instead they tell us that the rules of morality are man-made things or “constructions.” They are created by nations or by subcultures within nations or by individuals. This last alternative has become increasingly popular in our highly individualistic age; hence we hear people saying that such and such conduct may not be right for everybody but it’s “right for me.”
3. The idea that there are human rights is enormously popular today, so popular that whenever we think that X would be socially desirable we are tempted to claim that X is a human right and that society’s failure to provide X is a great violation of human rights. But the idea that human rights are God-given is far less popular. Many, perhaps even most, Americans today simply postulate the existence of rights without feeling the need to trace these back to a foundation in God or anything else. These postulated rights float on air, so to speak, having no metaphysical foundation.
4. According to the U.S. Supreme Court (in its Roe decision of 1973) the Constitution contains, at least by very clear implication, a right to abortion. (This would have come as a great surprise to the men who drafted the Constitution and its Amendments, but this didn’t bother the Supreme Court in 1973; nor has it bothered many pro-abortion people ever since.) But this “right” to abortion makes a mockery of the right to “life” very explicitly expressed in the Declaration. And it won’t bother the “progressive” elements in our society when they move on, as surely they will in the future, to assert that the Constitution also implies a right to involuntary euthanasia.
In drifting away from the foundational principles of the United States, we are like those “liberal or “progressive” Christians (both Protestant and Catholic) who drift away from the foundational principles of Christianity as found in the New Testament or in the classical Creeds. These Christians imagine they can keep Christianity alive while rejecting its theological foundations.
But they cannot. Neither, I fear, can our “progressive” Americans keep the United States alive while rejecting its philosophical foundations.
David Carlin, a former Democratic Majority Leader of the Rhode Island Senate, is the author of Can a Catholic Be a Democrat? How the Party I Loved Became the Enemy of My Religion.