The beginning is always a good place to start, and our republic begins on July 4, 1776, with those familiar words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Thomas Jefferson was tasked by the Continental Congress with the work of setting out the grievances against the king of Great Britain that had made it necessary to dissolve the political bonds that had, until that moment, connected the American colonies to England. In drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson drew heavily from the work of John Locke, whose book, Two Treatises of Government (1689), could not have been written without the Reformation, which had started less than two centuries earlier in 1517.
Locke’s First Treatise attacks the understanding that civil society is founded on a beneficent patriarchalism justified by an appeal to the divine right of kings to rule. His Second Treatise articulated a theory of civil society that is based instead on the equality of persons and on the mutual rights and obligations implied in a contract between the ruler and subjects to protect their lives, liberties and property. These foundational ideas of the equality of persons and of government by leaders whose authority is derived from the free consent of those governed are direct consequences of the religious convictions that inspired and sustained the Reformation.
The Reformation began with concerns about how the Church was managing its life and relationship with the faithful and with the state. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door for discussion, the internet of his day, he had no idea how far-reaching his actions and those of his fellow reformers would be, for they were not only addressing issues of teaching and doctrine, but setting into motion revolutionary ideas about personhood and society.
When Luther challenged the abuses in the church’s life and practice he did so from the position that flawed humanity can only be made right with God and with each other through God’s own reconciling initiative that we call grace. The reformers believed that every individual had equal access to the liberating freedom from sin and death and to the life of love and service that Christ offered to all, because every person was created by and could be redeemed by God.
Every person then, was deemed competent to engage these important truths without mediation by king, bishop or priest. The Church was a gathered community of free persons choosing to associate on the basis of shared beliefs and commitments, creating a priesthood not of individuals but of all believers.
Luther’s personal courage in the face of great pressure to abandon his challenge to the church’s status quo centralized the sanctity and liberty of individual conscience, as he famously said “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.”
The understanding of the individual as the primary building block of civil society and moral community, and of freedom as a component of the religious, political and social identity of human beings would create the social and political structures that over time would become the foundation of the modern democratic traditions on which the free societies of Europe and North America would rest.
(Robert Fain is pastor of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Augusta.)