For Christians, the freedoms we enjoy as Americans must be recognized as the blessings they are and be properly oriented to our ultimate identity as citizens of heaven. The aspirational and foundational ideals recognized in the Declaration of Independence, the recognition of God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, represent a deeply profound insight into the nature of human social life. The Founders embedded these ideals into a larger framework of the created order that emphasizes the delicate balance of rights as well as responsibilities, spiritual as well as material goods.
President Calvin Coolidge, in a remarkable speech, observed that the Declaration was "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 scepter 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."
This emphasis on the proper relationship between material and spiritual goods echoes a fundamental biblical teaching. As Jesus put it, "life does not consist in an abundance of possessions" (Luke 12:15 NIV). Indeed, when the framers of the Declaration substituted the pursuit of "happiness" for "property" in the enumeration of rights endowed by our Creator God, they enshrined a vision of social flourishing and human life that transcends the bounds of the merely material and temporal. Human beings live as creatures designed to enjoy both material and spiritual goods, and when our priorities are right then we value the things of earth in proper perspective.
Jesus commands us to seek first God's kingdom and righteousness (Matt. 6:33), and promises that all our temporal and worldly goods will be provided for as well. America's long tradition of respecting religious freedom and freedom of conscience stands as a testimony to the priority of the spiritual over the material, and how the eternal in turn infuses meaning and significance into the temporal. This is a legacy to which we must always return, as the threats to liberty are ever-present, coming from within and without. Our own fallenness leads us into the idolatry of material comforts, whether in the form of individual consumerism or collectivist promises of the welfare state.
Jesus came that we might be "free indeed" (John 8:36) and to give us life so that we might "have it to the full" (John 10:10). This vision of the liberated life includes freedom from sin as well as freedom for loving worship of God and service of others. To the extent that America continues to return to and be shaped by its ideals of life, liberty, and the pusuit of happiness, it remains a blessing to be celebrated by Christians, even as we recognize that the American experiment in ordered liberty is the historical exception rather than the norm. It ought to be valued as such.