Today, there are about 7.5 billion people in the world. Out of those people, nearly half – more than 3 billion – live in poverty, never to know the kind of life we enjoy in the States. They wake up each day, not able to go to school, not able to enjoy the comfort of a home, not able to watch a movie or go to a baseball game, and in too many cases, not even able to eat.
But, not so in America. Americans have almost unlimited access to food and water, education (whether through schooling or the internet), medical assistance, sports activities and other interests, and so much more. In fact, even the poor of our society are better off than many people in the world. Those below the poverty line in America are more likely to have a telephone, a television, an air conditioner, an automobile, eat more red meat and have larger living quarters than the middle class across Europe.
Not only that, but our 4% of the world — America — has produced more books, more plays, more symphonies, more copyrights, and more inventions than the rest of the world combined.
On top of America’s economic success, our form of government, based on the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, has lasted longer than any other form. Since it went into effect in March, 1789, our Constitution has been our nation’s governing document for the past 228 years. Since that same year (1789), France has had 15 constitutions. Since 1822, Brazil has had 8 constitutions. Since 1918, Russia has had 4, and since 1954, China has also had 4.
All of this forces me to ask myself, “Why?” Why has America seen such unprecedented success — economically, socially, and politically?
Unfortunately, too many don’t have the answers, and for those who do have some answers, often, they are the wrong answers. A surprising number of Americans don’t even have a good understanding of basic civics, such as the three branches of government. According to one study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, “While little more than a third of respondents (36 percent) could name all three branches of the U.S. government, just as many (35 percent) could not name a single one.” Also, according to an article from the Washington Post, “…just 15 percent of Americans could correctly identify the chief justice of the United States, John Roberts, while 27 percent knew Randy Jackson was a judge on American Idol. Only 13 percent knew the Constitution was signed in 1787.”
If my generation doesn’t know simple things like the branches of government, how can they know what makes America great? If we don’t know the answers to these questions, America is bound to be fundamentally transformed. If we do not preserve whatever it is that has made America unique, than we will see the fall of a nation that has been more to the world, and done more for the world than any other nation in history.
We must understand that whatever it is that makes us great isn’t a president, isn’t our location, isn’t our skin color, or anything else like that.
It’s something much deeper.
While there are many, many things that have made America special (some of which we’ll be covering in the weeks to come!), I want to specifically focus on a few principles found in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
The Declaration of Independence
Our Declaration of Independence is a truly remarkable document. It was in this great document that the founders gave us the “why” of government.
The Declaration says:
“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. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
From this portion of the Declaration of Independence, David Barton outlines the five principles that, as he says, make up the “heart and soul of American government.”
The first principle is that “Government acknowledges that there is a Creator.”
Our nation’s founders believed that acknowledgement of and dependence upon God was essential to a free and prosperous nation.
John Adams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a man who served in many capacities during the founding era, said that, “The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity. I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God.”
Also, a statement from Congress of 1854 says, “The great, vital, and conservative element in our system is the belief of our people in the pure doctrines and the divine truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The second principle is “Government acknowledges that the Creator gives specific inalienable rights to man.”
This indicates jurisdictional lines. Our system of government was built on the idea that there are certain things which the government cannot touch, and that ‘we the people’ tell the government what it can and cannot do.
Ronald Reagan communicated this idea so well when he said, “‘We the People’ tell the Government what to do, it doesn’t tell us. ‘We the people’ are the driver – the Government is the car. And we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast. Almost all the world’s constitutions are documents in which governments tell the people what their privileges are. Our Constitution is a document in which ‘We the People’ tell the Government what it is allowed to do. ‘We the people’ are free.”
The third principle is “Government acknowledges that it exists to protect God-given rights.”
While many societies tell the people what their rights are, our founders believed that our rights came from God — the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They understood that if someone, or something else gets to decide what your rights are, they could also take them away. On the contrary, God-given rights were the things with which government must not interfere.
The fourth principle says that, “Government acknowledges that below the level of God-given rights, government powers are to be operated only with the permission of citizens – i.e., with the ‘consent of the governed.’”
This is the idea of government “by the people, for the people,” as opposed to the arbitrary rule under which they had lived as English subjects. The “consent of the governed” is an essential idea to our constitutional republic.
The fifth and final principle is this: “If government fails to meet the four standards above, the people have an inalienable right to abolish that government and institute a new one that does observe the four criteria above.”
Just as the founders did, ‘we the people’ even have the right to “alter or abolish” our government, only so long as we truly follow and preserve the principles the founders outlined.
With a foundation in the “why,” the Constitution is the “how” of our government. It gives us the “nuts and bolts” of exactly how our system of government would work. While there are many principles and ideas to bring out in the Constitution, today I want to bring out the incredible stability of our Constitution.
First, it is very difficult to amend the Constitution, which, though it may seem like a hindrance to society, has actually been a tremendous blessing. Because of this characteristic, arbitrary whims do not easily take over. Instead, the will of the people is consistently and thoroughly followed.
Second, because those serving in office are representing many different ideas and opinions, the President’s term is four years, senator’s terms are six years, and representative’s terms are only two years. The difference in length of terms of office also protects our system of government from rapid and arbitrary change.
Third, the systematic separation of powers between three branches allows for balance, accountability, and a method of preserving our God-given rights. An article from the Heritage Foundation expounds on the reason for the separation of powers so well: “Tyranny is a danger because man’s passions and reason are not perfectly harmonious; his reason may be distorted by desire. Although each man has by nature the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, he cannot secure these rights without joining together with other men to form a civil society, a people. Despite the legal unity of this people, it is composed of individuals whose impassioned opinions and interests divide them into majorities and minorities. As a precaution against injustice, therefore, the powers of government must be so divided that no man or group of men may wield all of them at once.”
While this has not been exhaustive, I hope it has given you something to ponder, and something for which we can all be thankful.
Even though America is not perfect, and even though many things seem to divide us in this modern era, these are principles around which we can and must unite. My desire is that my fellow young Americans can see the great opportunity we have to preserve the things we enjoy for those who will come after us.
So then, if you love America, let’s learn the things the founders learned, and move forward together for an even better America!
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