by Gary Hardaway
During a visit to Yellowstone National Park a few weeks ago, my wife and I viewed an educational film concerning national park history. Yellowstone was the first to be established, signed into existence by President Ulysses Grant in 1872. Today there are 397 park areas reaching from Maine to Hawaii to Alaska.
Their collective grandeur is beyond description. If you don’t believe in God, I dare you to spend a couple of days in Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres of scenic glory. It will test your atheistic soul to the max.
In addition to managing and protecting America’s natural wonders, the National Park Service takes special care of historic sites like the Gettysburg Battlefield, Mt. Rushmore, Valley Forge, and, most relevantly, Independence Hall in Philadelphia. In fact, the movie recreated a brief tableaux depicting Thomas Jefferson at his desk, quill in hand, struggling to craft each crucial word of the text of the Declaration of Independence. And here, the scriptwriter stumbled – badly.
With Jefferson on the screen, the voice-over narrator begins to quote the Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So far, so good, except the narrator, reading his script, adds two more words not in the text: “and independent.” Why try to “improve” on Jefferson? Why distort the original? We were soon to endure more.
The next words completely abandon the document. “That from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and undeniable.” By the visual images of Thomas Jefferson on screen, the watching audience is under the impression that it is also listening to what the founders actually signed. Viewers are being misinformed.
Every single word of the Declaration conveys weighty significance. The Founders labored mightily to express exactly what they believed and meant. For a government service to mangle their eloquent work is astonishing and appalling.
What does the Declaration actually say?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
We are endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights. We don’t “derive” such rights. We don’t do anything to obtain them. We gratefully, freely, receive these privileges as undeserved gifts from God. The Founders intended us to treasure these gifts as a sacred trust, a precious and holy stewardship.
Just as Creation itself must be treasured and conscientiously protected from misuse, so our natural rights require diligent stewardship. Otherwise, the body politic will be defiled with disorder, injustice, and social breakdown.
Americans ought to memorize the first few lines the Declaration and teach them to their children. They supply us with a compass by which to direct our political commitments.
An instructive paradigm comes to us from the book of Proverbs in the Bible. Solomon was a king and father figure to a group of younger men in his government. He wrote the Proverbs to instill personal character and effective leadership. Time and time again he stressed the value of his exact words.
Lay hold of my words with all your heart . . . . Get wisdom, get understanding. Do not forget my words or swerve from them. . . . Pay attention to my wisdom, listen well to my words of insight.
When Solomon wrote these “words of insight,” he did not necessarily view them as divinely inspired. But he certainly knew that he possessed worthwhile wisdom that later generations should highly respect.
Our Founding Fathers bequeathed remarkable wisdom and insight to us. We owe them the respect of listening well to their words – their exact words.
The park service does a great job preserving the splendor of Yellowstone. It needs to do a better job of preserving the splendor of our Founders’ conception of God-given rights.
Gary Hardaway directs Summit School of Ministry in Northwest Washington, where he teaches a course on “Joy at Work,” a Christian perspective on the significance of one’s work and calling.
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