Ameri-anity

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  United States Declaration of Independence
This single statement encapsulates the heart of America. And at its center is that Lockean trifecta of rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It's with great pride that Americans speak of them. But there's one little phrase in that sentence that's always puzzled me: "...endowed by their Creator."

Ascribing God's endorsement to human ideals is tricky business. Granted, I think America has done a reasonable job indoctrinating its citizens by proof texting their fears away with verses like John 3:16 and 8:36. Still if we're to maintain any notions that the United States is or was a Christian nation, I think this warrants a closer look at what God really says about our rights.

Life

Jesus said that he came to give us life, more abundant. I like that. It's easy to interpret in a variety of ways, especially in the context of a wealthy, first-world nation. But Jesus also said that in this life we would have trouble. That's important to note because it makes a key distinction between life today (American life) and life tomorrow (eternal life). In fact, Jesus is recorded multiple times saying, "He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it" (John 12:25).

Of course, Jesus will make good on his promise about the future, but believing in him for that promise includes suffering for him. So no, life is not a God-given right. Eternal life is a gift, but our current lot is death. And make no mistake, we will all die.

Liberty

The Bible speaks frequently about freedom. What's interesting is that when most Americans quote those verses, they miss an important preposition: "from." Freedom, in biblical terms, is not some ontological, free-standing principle; it's a relational one. When Paul says that we are free from sin, he simultaneously says that we enslaved to God (Romans 6:15-23).

In essence, the theology of the Bible makes the interesting observation that libertarian freedom does not exist--we are always at the mercy of a will beyond our own. So no, liberty is not a God-given right. Freedom to God has been granted, but freedom from righteousness is lost. And we all remain slaves.

Happiness

In America where life and liberty are cheap, happiness quickly becomes the order of the day. And ultimately, we want to be happy doing whatever it is we're doing. The Preacher concurs:
I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime; moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor—it is the gift of God (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13).
photo credit: cybertoad via photopin cc
But just like eternal life, we are not entitled to happiness; it is a gift. We do not command its appropriation or distribution. Rather, we partake of a beneficent God's mercy. So no, happiness is not a God-given right. It is an allowance given to an otherwise powerless existence incapable of self-actualization.

Christians, American or otherwise, do not operate under the principles of any human institution no matter how wise. We are citizens of heaven, and as such, we are recipients of privileges, not entitlements. And privileges, unlike entitlements, can be revoked. As the poorly written song quoting Scripture goes: "he gives and takes away." So as American Christians find more and more of our rights dwindling, I only hope Jesus will find us saying, "Blessed be the name of the Lord," not, "Hey! Give those back!"

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