Earlier this summer, I urged parents to use the season's holidays to teach children about the importance of patriotism and the responsibilities of citizenship.
Last week marked an especially important moment for families to learn about our nation's history — and you don't have to stop because the fireworks ended. Each Independence Day, parents have a special opportunity to explore this unique moment in human history. It's never too early to give children a good grounding in these topics.
The Declaration of Independence expressed what Thomas Jefferson called the "American mind." There are many lessons to be learned from this founding document, but for me the introduction and preamble to the Declaration serve as a kind of catechism of citizenship. Too often, having heard these words throughout our lives, we simply gloss over them without thinking hard about the meaning. You can use the ideas contained in these few sentences to introduce even young children to what it means to be an American. Once children understand the basic ideas behind the introduction and preamble, they will be well on their way to preparation as a citizen.
The Declaration's introduction contains the phrase, "the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them." This is no casual phrase; it is rather a bold pronouncement. Jefferson and the other founders who signed their names to the Declaration were trumpeting the truth of Natural Law, also referred to as Moral Law.
Natural Law comes to us as one of the treasures of Western civilization, a fundamental truth shared by both philosophy and Judeo-Christian theology (the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans about the law "written on their hearts" by God). There is much more to be said about Natural Law than a weekly column can contain, but it's important for students to understand that when our founders spoke of or wrote about Natural Law, they meant that the foundation of all law was not "created" by humans. Instead, humans derive proper notions of justice from the Natural Law given to us by a Creator. This moral law is unchanging, and therefore serves as an objective way to measure all other laws. The moral law does not shift from decade to decade, or from one situation to another.
That's an important distinction in an era when some politicians like to speak of "a living constitution" that is constantly evolving. Without the founding principle of Natural Law, a nation's rulers are free to impose any system of laws they wish (and this is precisely what happened in 1917, when a far different and sinister revolution occurred in Russia). Our founding principles are stable, like a bedrock, and the Declaration's introduction demonstrates why.
The preamble takes it a step further with these immortal ringing words: "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." Because our Founding Fathers understood that we are endowed by a Creator with Natural Rights that come from Natural Law, they also understood these rights were "unalienable" (meaning they could not be snatched away from us by anyone, no matter how tyrannical rulers might behave).
While a government might for a time force oppression or unjust laws on a people, the people themselves always own the Rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness because they have been endowed, or graced with those rights, by God. Gandhi expressed this truth when he said, “You may torture my body, break my bones and even kill me. And then you can have my dead body. But not my obedience.”
More than two centuries ago, our Founding Fathers gathered to sign a remarkable document based on the incandescent ideals of Natural Law and Natural Rights given to us by a Creator, so that we could found a nation of liberty. Enjoy these blessings of liberty in your home this summer by helping your children learn about them. Let freedom ring this week, next week and throughout the rest of the year.