The Declaration of Independence, the founding charter of our nation, is one the greatest assertions of human rights and dignity ever written. Its moral argument for liberty, equality and responsibility rings as true today as did in 1776.
We have to go back to, perhaps, Jesus' Sermon on the Mount to find a declaration more steeped in self-evident truths.
In fact, the two bear many similarities. They both speak deep, hopeful truths about the nature of man in language so clear and inspiring that they have literally changed the world every day since they were first delivered.
And, perhaps often overlooked, they were, in fact, both merely introductions, not conclusions.
The Sermon on the Mount is at the beginning of Matthew's Gospel, not the end. The Declaration of Independence was signed five years before the Battle of Yorktown, and seven years before the Revolutionary War officially ended.
Both two millennia ago and two centuries ago, identifying human rights was only the beginning of the story. Whether following in the footsteps of Christ or reviewing the experiences of America's founding generation, this is a crucially important lesson.
The lesson is that with rights come responsibilities. Rights are only the beginning.
The rest of the story involves what we do with those rights. This is especially so in America today.
Here, self-government is not just a political system; it must also be a personal ethic. We can govern ourselves as a nation only to the extent that we govern ourselves as individuals. An assertion of rights is empty without a corresponding acceptance of responsibility.
The rights we enjoy are vast and significant. Our government recognizes that we are created with the God-given rights of life, liberty and the pursuit happiness.
Because our rights are endowed by our creator, our duty is to serve him. And of course, the way we serve our God is by serving our neighbor.
Human rights are the beginning of the story. Service — that is the rest of the story.
In this light, we can begin to see more clearly exactly what it is we celebrate on the Fourth of July.
Properly considered, independence, liberty and equality are not simply moral principles; they are moral challenges. So you're free — what are you going to do with your freedom?
The challenge issued to us, two millennia ago in Galilee, is to be a light on a hill, to provide comfort to the needy, to repair the world one day and one decision at a time.
The great gift the Founding Fathers gave us two centuries ago in Philadelphia is a nation where success depends on service.
Our free enterprise economy takes a lot of criticism for promoting greed, materialism, and competition. But no matter who you are or what you're seeking, the first question anyone in our economy must ask is: how can I help?
Businesses do not survive unless they take care of their customers, their suppliers, their employees and their neighborhoods.
The very same process is at work every day in our voluntary civil society: our civic, charitable, religious and social organizations do not survive unless they succeed in achieving their objectives.
Both in our free-enterprise economy and our voluntary civil society, success in America is ultimately based not on competition, but cooperation. We look out for ourselves by looking out for everyone else.
Freedom, properly understood, doesn't mean you're on your own. It means, "we're all in this together." As it is with our economy and our civil society, so it is with our republic, as well.
On Independence Day, as we celebrate with fireworks, parades and snow cones, we also recognize this annual event as an opportunity to cherish the God-given rights that make us free, strong and able to carry out our responsibility to do God's work on the earth.
Let us stand together as the watchman on the tower, the city on the hill, the candle that must not be hid under a bushel and the salt of the earth. As Americans, we have been born with God-given rights which, if properly understood and righteously asserted, will enable us to continue to establish this nation as the world's last great hope.