Why the Fourth of July Is a Presbyterian Holiday
While Americans today are roasting hot dogs and setting off fireworks, few will be thinking deeply about the significance of the event we remember, the issuing of The Declaration of Independence by our courageous Founding Fathers. Christians should realize, however, that the ideas enshrined in the founding of our nation and in the Declaration are biblical ideas that are just as important today. Reformed Christians, especially, should see in the language of our Founders the ideas of covenant theology that are essential for us to recover and defend today. With this in mind, let me offer three reasons why the Fourth of July is really a Presbyterian holiday.
1. Because the Declaration of Independence declares the sovereignty of God as the chief and final authority. This was the point of the famous words, "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." Our Founding Fathers thus declared that God's laws constrain the actions of secular governments. The authors of the Declaration based their argument for inalienable rights on natural law, but they expressed substantially the biblical doctrine that is expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith: "God the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates to be under Him, over the people, for His own glory, and the public good" (XXIII.1). On the Fourth of July, therefore, Americans celebrate the Presbyterian principle that God's law rules over the laws and affairs of men.
2. Because the Declaration was drafted and signed by covenant representatives of the people. It is little appreciated today that the American system of government, both in the Continental Congress that issued the Declaration of Independence and in the U. S. Constitution, is essentially Presbyterian. That is, it draws from the covenant theology of the Bible to provide federal delegates to act on behalf of the people. Just as Presbyterian elders govern together as the Session of the church, so did the Continental Congress declare independence on behalf of the colonies. The Declaration was published by elected representatives who, as they put it, exercised "their just powers from the consent of the governed," against a tyrannical executive ruler. So also today, it is the role of a strong U. S. Congress to reign in the authority of the President and the Executive Branch of our government.
The Founding Fathers were greatly influenced by the historically important book written by the Scottish Presbyterian Samuel Rutherford, titled, Lex Rex. This book surveyed the form of government seen in the Bible in arguing that people should governed by representatives organized in a hierarchy of lesser and greater ruling bodies. Just as the people of Israel were organized into families, clans, tribes, and the nation, so also Americans are governed by cities/towns, counties, states, and the federal government. In this covenantal system of representative government, differing authority is assigned to each level and the people are defended from the tyranny of higher governments by the power of the local governments. This was, in fact, the biblical rationale for America's War of Independence. The colonies' rebellion against a tyrannical king was justly conducted under the authority of lesser magistrates who were fulfilling their biblical duty to protect the rights of the people. The Fourth of July reminds Americans, therefore, of our need for strong local and state governments, along with strong families and churches, to protect the people from the tyranny of the national executive.
3. Because it declares the right and duty of godly people to reject and oppose ungodly tyranny imposed from above. The Declaration of Independence was an act of rebellion by courageous public servants who risked their lives and fortunes for the sake of liberty and justice. The Declaration stated: "Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends [i.e. life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it." Here is a vital principle that Christians need to recall today, that no national government or tyrannical leader should be granted the right to rule our consciences in opposition to the Word of God.
This principle or just rebellion has highlighted many of the great eras of Presbyterian history. It was a refusal to follow King Charles I's unbiblical demands on the church that led the Puritan Parliament to launch the English Civil War (1642-1646). It was the Scottish Covenanters' rejection of the claims of Charles II to rule as king over the church that led to The Killing Time of the 1680's, during which so many Covenanters were slain rather than yield to spiritual tyranny of the king and resulting in so many Presbyterians immigrating to the American colonies, especially in the Carolinas and Middle Atlantic states. The Founding Fathers were consciously following the spiritual precedent of Presbyterian dissenters who demanded the liberty of conscience and were willing to fight for it. Along these lines, the Fourth of July reminds Christians that we must never accept the demands of secular governments to violate the Word of God, whether or not the Supreme Court upholds our religious liberty, and that we must employ the authority of the church and the lesser magistrates to throw off any future yokes of tyranny.
May God's people today remember the heritage passed down by our valiant Founding Fathers and may you enjoy a happy Presbyterian Fourth of July!
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