Friday, March 7, 2008

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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.

“Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” - these words from our U.S. Declaration of Independence are familiar to most Americans and much maligned words by many evangelicals. I have heard many evangelical leaders and pastors, both Reformed and not, disparage these three terms as if our Founding Fathers had their heads in the clouds of the Enlightenment when they penned them. The most frequent retort is that life and possibly liberty can be found in Scripture, but the “pursuit of Happiness” is surely unbiblical. I believe such statements more accurately portray our modern, abject ignorance of U.S. History then they do the biblical naiveté of our Founding Fathers (FF).

My thesis is that “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” is a succinct statement of basic Calvinistic anthropology and governmental theory. Let me explain.

Quick side note: I want to warn you that this is not an explanation or argument for the epistemology of our FF. I will grant that the belief in truth to be literally and completely self-evident, as a product of the School of Scottish Common Sense, and the philosophical views of men like John Locke did play major roles in the thoughts and statements of our Founders. However, they were not the dominant stream. Deism was not dominant either – I leave you to read George Washington's Sacred Fire by Peter Lillback to prove the point that Deism was not the majority or even minority view amongst our FF.

First, our FF were products of two centuries of solid Puritan Calvinism. Yes, Puritanism had its ups and downs in the Colonies even as soon as the first generation after Plymouth Rock. Nevertheless, the worldview of our FF was consistently Calvinistic and consistently biblical (as if the two were different!!). Since this is a point much maligned by secular academicians and the students indoctrinated by them and their revisionism, then I can provide proof of this in a later post if it becomes enough of an issue for some….

However, what does this do for the specific author of the phrase “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”, i.e. Thomas Jefferson, who was a professed non-Christian. Remember the great point Francis Schaffer made about worldviews. Today the dominate worldview is humanism, even among Christians – it is the way that almost all of us think, serve, behave, love, etc. in our world, even as believers. The contrary was true for our FF. The dominate worldview at that time, and for much of American History, was not only Christian, but Calvinist. This would have even included such men as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. This may not have influenced their depraved hearts behind closed doors, but it definitely dictated the governmental and economic policies they put forth.

Second, American Calvinism was well versed in Reformed experimental Christianity. Perhaps the greatest example of American Calvinistic thinking on practical theology and practice is the American theologian Jonathan Edwards. Edwards is quite well known for his Treaties on Religious Affections. In this treatise Edwards exposits 1 Peter 1:8 and explains that God created man as beings of desire – we always do what we want to do the most at any given moment. This is according to design and normal. The problem, natural man does not long after Christ and so he never seeks nor believes in Christ. Therefore, regeneration is needed.

However, step back for a moment from this purely salvific reality and look at what Edwards teaches about anthropology. Man was created by God to be a desiring being. Man desire things. Man hungers and longs for things, both material and immaterial. The Psalms convincingly portray man as a being of desire– longing after God like a deer after water, or delighting our selves in the Lord and He will gives us the desires of our heart. Jesus taught that he who loves Him will obey Him – i.e. he who desires Christ will desire to obey Christ’s teachings. Desire is what drives man. In fact, this is exactly what is behind Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations – economics is about ‘want’ and markets must freely allow these pursuits. When this happens, what is best for the individual, i.e. fulfilling his desires, becomes best for the economic community.

Now, I do not mean illicit, sinful, sheer passionate desire and wants. In fact, our worldview has been so transformed from Edwards’ day that we cannot even read the above statements and talk about desires without illicit, hedonistic, pornographic definitions being read into the word desire. This is not what I mean. I mean the wants and desires that are at the core of our being – life, food, shelter, protection, safety, procreation, and community. Even as unfallen beings we would have still desired, we would have simply desired the right things all the time.

Third, Edwards was not espousing a new thought. In fact, one of Edwards’ main sources for understanding of anthropology was Petrus van Mastricht, a seventeenth century Dutch Reformer. Van Mastricht’s four volume magnum opus, Theoretico-Practica Theologia, was the dominate text for instruction in theology in the American colonies in the eighteenth century – Perry Miller has some great resources about the 17th and 18th Century New England mind and education to further elaborate this point. The idea of desire or longing as part of man’s core makeup was part of the warp and woof of Calvinistic anthropology – and it still should be!!!

Thus, when a man like Thomas Jefferson takes the words of John Locke and transforms them from “Life, Liberty, and Property” to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” he is stating the very essentials of what it means to be human biblically. The intention of government is not management of my life or provision of my needs. The purpose of government is to ensure that I am alive, that I have the proper freedom as a vicegerent to be a steward, and that I can go forth and fulfill the divine-desires placed within. Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness is what it means to be human. It means being able to live your life according to the conviction of your mind, properly pursuing the desires of your heart. God did not create man to be a slave to another intellectually, emotionally, or psychologically. God created man after His own image: thinking, desiring, and being according to one’s own self. It is within this grand framework that man is to live, move and have his being – as man thinks upon God’s providence and creation, desires after God’s Law, and goes forth in-like.

The great problem: this only works for a truly moral people. Many of our FF echoed that our Constitution is one that will only work for a Christian people. Liberty is quickly turned into license and happiness to lust when we abandoned divine moorings. Thus, for those who malign the great statement of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” I fear simply proclaim their humanism-laden worldview while testifying to their ignorance of our Nation’s history.


  1. Jason,

    What evidence is there that Edwards' view influenced the Founding Fathers?

  2. One of the inadequacies of my post is that I do not mean that the Founding Fathers were looking specifically to Edwards when they penned their nation-creating words. In fact, I believe it was Dr. John Gerstner, Sr. that stated that there have been few if any studies on how Edwards’ writings formed and impacted the political ideas of both the Revolution and the Founding Fathers.

    Instead in Religious Affections, Edwards simply presents a typical cross-section of the 18th century American understanding of anthropology – Edwards simply elucidated it and applied to the Great Awakening and salvation/sanctification. This same understanding, i.e. of man being guided by desire, is reflective in the writings of Van Mastricht, Cotton Mather, etc. I can provide some samples in a little bit if you like….

    What I a putting forth is that the phrase “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” is reflective of this dominate Calvinist understanding of anthropology. I believe that we attempt to read 21st century definitions back into much of our Founding documents without having a clue about the worldview(s) of the author(s).

  3. Jason,

    I see. This post is good and a great example to do our history very carefully. We ought not to read our modern struggles and issues back into dead theologians.

    I like this work in historical theology!

  4. Great post, I really enjoyed it. John Robbins wrote a great essay using primary and secondary sources to show how the Calvinist understanding of total depravity informed the Founder's view of government more than any other philosophical thought.

  5. "Thus, when a man like Thomas Jefferson takes the words of John Locke and transforms them from “Life, Liberty, and Property” to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” he is stating the very essentials of what it means to be human biblically. The intention of government is not management of my life or provision of my needs. The purpose of government is to ensure that I am alive, that I have the proper freedom as a vicegerent to be a steward, and that I can go forth and fulfill the divine-desires placed within."

    Wait... are you saying that Thomas Jefferson used "pursuit of happiness" instead of "property" because "[t]he intention of government is not management of my life or provision of my needs [?]"

    If this is the case, then you clearly lack a basic understanding of John Locke's philosophy. "Property" refers to a right an individual has to his property against everyone else INCLUDING the government. This is a negative right, NOT an affirmative right as modern liberals would construe it. John Locke was a classical liberal who saw property as a negative right. So in other words you have a right NOT to have you property taken, but you don't have a right to property such that the government must take affirmative action to provide anything to you. Thomas Jefferson clearly did not leave out the word "property" for that reason. Any of our founding fathers would have understood basic Lockean philosophy.

    The greatest mistake the founding fathers EVER made (other such things as allowing slavery, eminent domain, government regulation of commerce, etc...) was using the words life, liberty and pursuit of happiness instead of life, liberty, and property. Property is completely fundamental. In fact John Locke describes life and liberty as property rights! You own your life, and you own your liberty. (In relation to everyone but God of course, the idea of property does not negate the stewardship position one has in relation to God... so in this manner property rights are relative. But in relation to others they are objective.) But pursuit of happiness? Pursuit of happiness is a fundamental tenant of liberty! It's completely superfluous to ever have written it into the constitution. It only defines partially what liberty is (liberty is the puruist of happiness, but it could also be the pursuit of unhappiness too, or the purusit of nothing at all.) Thomas Jefferson originally wanted to quote John Locke by saying life, liberty, and property - but many of the federalists in the government would not allow it because they believed that a sovereign ought to have the right to violate individual property rights. So Jefferson had to compromise with "pursuit of happiness". Same thing happened with the constitution. The document is one big compromise - giving a bill of rights in return for a large federal government that has the power to take property with just compensation, and regulate commerce, etc...

    Maybe "pursuit of happiness" is in line with reformed theology - I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be. But natural rights are about so much more than just life and liberty. Even socialists recognize the right to life and liberty. It's not saying much to say that "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" came about as a result of reformed theology... and if it really is true - it reveals nothing more than a defect in reformed theology. (A defect of ommission.) However, I would venture a guess that reformed theology DOES recognize basic property rights. (I'm sure reformed individuals like Josh Walker, who last time I checked calls himself a libertarian, would agree with that.)


Before posting please read our Comment Policy here.

Think hard about this: the world is watching!