Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Legacy of the Declaration of Independence and Staying Focused in Prayer (Happy July 4th 2010)

Staying Focused in Prayer

Prayer has tremendous potential for spiritual elevation and intense pleasure. How tragic that such a great opportunity is sometimes regarded as a boring chore!

On one extreme, some people think that the object of prayer is to just rattle off words. On the other extreme, some people try so hard to pray properly that they become very tense and nervous.

The way to have an elevating prayer experience is to calmly recite the words, while keeping in mind that you are speaking to the Omniscient Creator of the Universe. Whenever an external thought comes into your mind, gently return your focus to what you were saying in your prayers. You need not fight other thoughts - just ignore them, and once again concentrate on the words of the prayers you are reciting. If the thoughts that come up concern a practical problem that must be dealt with, set a time later in the day when you will address that matter.

Love Yehuda

The Legacy of the Declaration of Independence

This Sunday, July 4th, we will once again celebrate our nation's founding, marking the day in 1776 that the Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of Independence was intended to be an official statement explaining why the 13 American colonies had declared their independence from Great Britain. In the years following its passage, however, this statement of principles about the rights of man grew to mean much more.

America became the only country in history founded, as Leo Strauss explained, "in explicit opposition to Machiavellian principles," by which he meant crass, power politics. Instead, America was founded on a set of clearly expressed "self-evident" truths. Thomas Jefferson said the Declaration was "intended to be an expression of the American mind," and indeed, no document since has so succinctly and so eloquently spelled out the spirit of America.

Our country has evolved out of the timeless truths expressed in the Declaration of Independence to develop a distinct character and set of values that distinguishes us from even other Western democracies.

This holiday, it is worth taking a look at how several key phrases from the Declaration of Independence have served as definitional statements about the aspirations of America, and how those words of our Founding Fathers' have affected America in the 234 years since they were written.

"...all men are created equal"

The Founding Fathers who authored the Declaration were the first people in the history of the world ever to express our natural equality as a principle of government in such an unqualified way. Though neither the Constitution that followed nor the Founders personally quite fulfilled the promise of those words, it has since been the project of our country to accomplish them.

America came to recognize that though we are not all literally equal -- we are born with different capabilities and attributes, and to different stations in life -- the words of the founders capture the truth that we must treat each other as equals. We are "created equal" in the sense that all men (and, we now recognize, all women) have the same natural rights, granted to them by God. We are all the same under the law.

This powerful statement of universal rights was used by abolitionists as a moral cudgel to rid the United States of slavery, an institution explicitly at odds with the truths expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Abraham Lincoln consistently evoked the phrase in his famous Peoria speech against the Kansas-Nebraska Act and later during the Lincoln-Douglas debates. As President, Lincoln again included the phrase in the Gettysburg Address as the moral underpinning by which the union should be rededicated. Later, during the women's suffrage movement and civil rights struggles of the 1960s, leaders such as Martin Luther King used the powerful phrase as a reminder to America that separate (treating people differently under the law based on their race) was not equal.

Leaders such as Lincoln and King believed that as America's founding political document, the Declaration of Independence is our moral guide with which to interpret the Constitution. They saw that we cannot divorce the law from the moral underpinnings that legitimize it.

But by what authority does that moral underpinning exist?

"...endowed by their Creator"

The core contention of the Declaration of Independence and the principle of natural rights upon which America was founded is that there is a higher moral order upon which the laws of man must be based. The Declaration asserts the existence of "the Laws of Nature and Nature's God," which had a clear meaning in 18th Century England and America. It referred to the will of God as displayed by the natural order of the world.

John Locke, who was widely read by the leaders of colonial America, wrote in his Second Treatise on Government: "Thus the law of nature stands as an eternal rule of all men, legislators as well as others. The rules that they make for other men's actions, conformable to the law of nature, i.e., to the will of God."

William Blackstone, who was arguably the single greatest influence on the creation of the American legal system, wrote in Commentaries on the Laws of England, "As man depends absolutely upon his Maker for everything, it is necessary that he should at all points conform to his maker's will."

America's founding was heavily influenced by the English and Scottish enlightenment, which specifically included a space for God and religion in its conceptions of rights, freedom and human reason. This gave the American Revolution a distinctly different character than the French Revolution, which in its most radical phase sought freedom by casting off all authority and remnants of the existing order -- especially God.

In the American formulation as declared by our founders, man's rights come from God, not from man's ability to "reason" them into existence. Man does not depend on government to grant him rights through a bureaucratic process, but instead to secure those rights that have been granted to him by God.

In other words, power comes from God, to you, which is then loaned to government. Thus, the Declaration states, "That to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

The English and Scottish enlightenment's conscious inclusion of a space for God and religion had another key influence on the American system of government. Whereas the French Revolution believed it could create a "new man" through government education and indoctrination, the American Founding Fathers had a profound sense of the fallen nature of man. Thus, they created a system of checks and balances that would serve as a restraint on those in power.

"...the pursuit of happiness"

Here again we see the influence of the English and Scottish enlightenment on the Founding Fathers. For writers such as John Locke and Francis Hutcheson, the term "happiness" meant something close to "wisdom and virtue." It did not mean hedonism or other shallow pleasures as the term is too often confused to mean today.

It is also essential to note that the Declaration does not say that we have a right to have happiness provided to us. It says we have the right to pursue happiness - an active verb. the Declaration says nothing about a right to redistribution of happiness. It says nothing about happiness stamps. It does not say some people can be too happy and that government should make them less happy out of a sense of fairness.

The Founding Fathers understood that government could not give people happiness, that it was instead up to government to create an environment where the people could best work to achieve their dreams.  polls of wealthy and successful people show that the harder one works for that success, the greater happiness one derives from it.

America is a land where through hard work, determination, and entrepreneurialism, people can achieve their big dreams. The right of "the pursuit of happiness" spelled out in the Declaration is a definitional statement about the nature of America that has attracted people from all over the world to come here to pursue those dreams.

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