By Prof. William Wagner WFFC Distinguished Chair for Faith & Freedom
In the beginning God… – Genesis 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:1-5 (NIV) I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds. – Hebrews 10:16 … the requirements of the law are writtenon their hearts,their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimesaccusing them and at other times even defending them. – Romans 2:15 Jesus specifically says: I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me… – John 14:6; For this reason I was born: for this reason I came into the world – to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me. – John 18:33-38
This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. – 1 Timothy 2:3-4 Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people. – Proverbs 14:34
Permanent Principles are moral absolutes God reveals in His Word and places on the human heart. Present at the creation of the world, these self-evident truths correspond to reality and remain constant through time. Rooted in divine, natural, and common law traditions, Permanent Principles form the fundamental foundation for preserving liberty, as well as for constitutional good governance under the rule of law. Written on each of our hearts, these self-evident Truths provide a moral compass with which to guide personal and institutional decision-making; Endowed by our Creator, they provide moral points of reference against which a culture measures right from wrong. Permanent Principles serve, therefore, as reliable objective standards by which to measure whether a government action is good or bad, just or unjust, constitutional or unconstitutional. The early American experience illustrates how a government recognizes and relies on Permanent Principles. Most of the Framers of the AmericanConstitution viewed God as the source of life and liberty rights.The Declaration of Independence clearly reflects such a view:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all … are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty...i
The core of the Framers’ understanding is revealed in Noah Webster’s seminal dictionary, published in the infancy of the republic. Webster defined unalienable as something “that cannot be legally or justly alienated” and right as
accordant to the standard of truth and justice or the will of God. That alone is right in the sight of God, which is consonant to his will or law; this being the only perfect standard of truth and justice… that is right which is consonant to the laws and customs of a country, provided these laws and customs are not repugnant to the laws of God ….ii
We see the promise of the Declaration embodied in the structure and text of the American Constitution. That document’s Framers make clear that we the people delegate power to the government with which to secure our freedom, while expressly limiting government’s exercise of power in ways that deprive citizens of their unalienable life and liberty interests. Moreover, unalienable life and liberty interests further limit exercise of government power. Here the drafters of the American Constitution chose simple language to express this vision of good governance under the rule of law. By enumerating and separating power, and listing liberties as a limit on the exercise of such power, we see their design of limited government. Thus, before exercising power, government must plug into a valid constitutional power source, authorizing the exercise of its power. The American Congress, for example, often relies on the Article I Commerce Power when enacting legislation regulating commerce. Likewise, the President of the United States relies upon the Article II Appointment Power when appointing the Cabinet. Legislators and executive officials exercising governmental power must always act within the scope of the constitutional power source. Just as constitutionally significant, legislators and executive branch officials, when exercising power, must not infringe upon constitutionally protected liberty. Indeed, government, informed by Permanent Principles must always recognize unalienable liberty as a limit on the exercise of its governmental authority. For example, the First Amendment to the American Constitution forbids, among other things, government action that prohibits freedom of expression and the free exercise of religious conscience.
But why should freedom of expression and religion limit the exercise of government power against citizens? The answer lies in the truth that humans hold inherent dignity because God created us in His image, including the capacity to exercise free will and to reason. Because humans possess inherent dignity, government authorities must respect it. The unalienable liberty of religious conscience and expression arise out of this inherent dignity; such liberty enables the Created to freely form a sentient personal relationship with his or her Creator, know His truth and, as a matter of conscience, share it with others.
Moreover, ideas and viewpoints informed by the sacred contribute enormously to the improvement of society (e.g., the abolition of slavery). For ideas and viewpoints informed by the sacred to enter the marketplace of ideas though, individuals must be free to not just to believe and hold them as a matter of conscience, but also to manifest such conscience, including through speech and other expression. Preserving the unalienable liberty of religious conscience and freedom of expression is, therefore, essential to ensure that citizens can introduce such ideas and viewpoints into the marketplace of ideas. It also ensures that these ideas, informed by the sacred, can continue to contribute to the improvement of society. Finally, this unalienable liberty protects against government action excluding citizens from participating in civil society based on the viewpoint or religious conscience held by the citizen.
Chipping away at a nation’s unalienable moral foundations, government and academic authorities increasingly forbid morality from informing the policy-making process or even being part of the constitutional marketplace of ideas.
Ironically, as government prohibits moral truth from informing its governance, the desperate needs of the hungry, homeless, widows, orphans, and others continue to exponentially expand. To address these growing needs and to change the current character of constitutional institutions, we must awaken the hearts of the faithful.
The blessings of liberty and prosperity come with responsibility. To whom much is given, much is required. Each generation inherits a special trust and calling to ensure the preservation of liberty and the moral administration of justice. Scripture increases the degree of this calling and responsibility by commanding the Christian to shine the light of Truth into the darkness and to resist conforming to the world.iii As government increasingly acts without constitutional authority and infringes upon God-given unalienable liberty, it is essential for the Church to create an educated, equipped, and engaged citizenry that will defend America’s Permanent Principles and the social order. Becoming familiar with the American Declaration of Independence and our United States Constitution is an important part of this process.
i The Declaration of Independence (1776) Paragraph 2
ii See definitions of ‘unalienable’ and ‘right’ in Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the
English Language, 1828.
iii See John 1:1-5; John 3:18; Romans 12:2