Do you believe you have an unalienable right to happiness? – A question that comes to mind for the 4th of July given the famous phrase from our Declaration of Independence. You remember: “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, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Actually, in Thomas Jefferson’s first draft this read, “We hold these truths to be sacred.” Benjamin Franklin crossed out the word “sacred” and wrote instead, “self-evident,” because Franklin believed the reasonable, self-evident nature of these truths were the basis of our founding lest the government seem to derive its legitimacy from religion per se.
The tension implied in that small edit concerning the basis of political authority dogged the founding of our nation and remains to the present day. But whether sacred or self-evident, do you believe you have a right to happiness? I think that’s the way the phrase has insinuated itself into our consciousness. Notice I dropped a few words: “a right to happiness” as opposed to the original, “a right to the pursuit of happiness.” The former suggests a universal human entitlement, the latter, a universal human goal.
I think we like the shorter version best: we have the right to happiness. This has become something of a modern proverb with a seeming biblical imprimatur, not unlike the phrase, “God helps those who help themselves.” When told that’s not in the Bible, some are inclined to respond, “Well, it ought to be!” And of course one of the reasons we gather on Sundays is to set the record straight — to listen for the truth that’s larger than our version so that our version can more nearly conform to what is in fact true.
Checking historical sources for the exact wording of the Declaration, I noticed a bit of revisionist history. One resource reads, “The signers of the Declaration believed it was obvious that ‘all men’ are created equal and have rights that cannot be taken away from them. By ‘all men,’ the signers meant people of every race and both sexes.”
Actually, you’ll remember that even though the Declaration preceded the Constitution, the Constitution did not guarantee the so-called “equal,” “self-evident,” and “unalienable” rights for African Americans and women. That would take the Civil War, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the 14th Amendment, women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement to advance. The aftershocks of those revolutions of liberty continue to the present moment.
And the issue of “happiness” also continues to evolve to the present moment. Whether entitlement or goal, would you say happiness is the largest outcome you desire for your life? You might respond by asking, “Well, that depends upon what we mean by ‘happiness’ doesn’t it?”
Recall the well-beloved words in Matthew’s gospel known as the Beatitudes, sometimes called “the bless-eds”. In order to make them more accessible, one modern translation presents them this way: “Happy…are the spiritually poor…Happy are those who mourn…Happy are those who are humble…Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires…Happy are those who are merciful…Happy are the pure in heart…Happy are those who work for peace…Happy are those who are persecuted because they do what God requires…” Evidently the translators chose “happy” since we have little appreciation of “blessed”.
Yet these blessed conditions are very different from what passes for happiness today—they have nothing to do with material desires, for instance. Within popular culture, doesn’t happiness equate with having stuff and things accompanying a relatively carefree life? Ever-onward upward mobility, graced with good lovin’, good food, good times and good health?
The idea that life owes us a mixture of well-sated desires, that this is the true goal of life, is an idea that dies hard. Pastoral experience reveals this as one of the fundamental dilemmas for American Christians: the blending of quasi-religious, political platitudes in a cultural soup serving up a narcissistic spirituality, which leads to an expectation that God is there primarily to deliver the goods to people who are pursuing their happiness. And the word “people” here can denote a privileged group boundaried by hard borders and miserly visa quotas lest the humble, poor, and mournful compete for seemingly scarce happiness resources.
I’m guessing that like me you’re grateful for the noblest ideals and outcomes promised in the founding of our nation. It’s useful to remember that it’s very much a work in progress, just like we are…