The following is a transcript of the episode, “YOUnited States of America”.
Here’s the thing that I love the most about the United States of America, and the thing that you probably love the most about the United States of America. You probably haven’t thought about it a long time, and none of you have ever thanked God for this. The thing that should cause us to get up every single day, even if you’re not a praying person, and say, “God, I know we don’t talk much, but I wanna let you know what I’m grateful for…” is this right here: the Bill of Rights. Because most countries don’t have a Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights was essentially created to protect our individual freedoms. And the Bill of Rights was the name it was given; it was the collective name for the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution that guaranteed personal rights.
And again, most nations––people in most nations––do not have individual or personal rights. We take them for granted; we assume them. So, let’s review really quickly, because you only know about three of these. But you should know all the rights that are your rights as American citizens as a result of the Bill of Rights, this collective name for the first 10 amendments. You have the right to free speech. We love that one. That’s why I get to get up here and say whatever I want, and you can say whatever you want back: freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. We get to gather. I don’t have to get a government permission for us to gather as a church. We have freedom of religion, okay? And then here’s one that took about 180 years to catch on: the freedom to bear arms.
Get it? Okay, now when I put it up there the way it’s actually written in the Constitution, it’s really even stranger. Check this out: “bear arms.”
The other thing you have is due process; we all have a right to due process.
We are free from search and seizure. That’s a great thing. We are free because of our Bill of Rights from cruel and unusual punishment. You can’t be tortured. You can’t be treated the way some people are treated in other countries as a citizen. And here’s the best one of all: we are all free from having to quarter soldiers. Aren’t you glad that one is in there!
Now, the guys––the group––that wrote the Bill of Rights and wrote our Constitution, they were so smart. They knew as times changed that the Bill of Rights and the specifics of the Bill of Rights would need to be adjusted.
So, they came up with the Ninth Amendment. Now, probably none of you know what’s in the Ninth Amendment. This should be your favorite amendment. The Ninth Amendment is the catch-all amendment. There are other individual rights that go beyond what’s listed. And so here’s what the Ninth Amendment says. It says, “The enumeration and the constitution of certain rights”––the ones we just talked about––”shall not be construed to deny or disparage other… “ It’s talking about other rights. “Retained by the people.” So that’s just a lot of gobbledygook language to say, “Hey, we’re not listing all the individual rights in these amendments. We’re just listing some specific ones, but there are other ones that go beyond the ones that are listed.” Isn’t this fascinating?
So, anyway, if we were to rewrite the Ninth Amendment in our 21st century vernacular and write it the way we express it in a way we think about our individual rights, here’s what it might look like. We would write it this way: “We have the right to do what I want, when I want, with whom I want as long as it doesn’t interfere with anyone else’s amended Ninth Amendment rights.” Because that’s how we think as Americans. “I’m an American. I can do what I want. I have a right. I have a right. I have a right.” Now here’s the problem. Every parent knows this. If you give someone rights but you don’t couple those rights with responsibility, things go horribly wrong.
If you give people rights but you don’t harness those rights with responsibility, things go horribly wrong. Did anyone ever––and it’s okay we’re insured, so don’t lie––did anyone ever have the car keys taken away from you when you were a teenager living at home? Anybody? Like why are you so shy? Be a little proud to take it away. Yeah! And so, what happened? You’re old enough to drive. The government gave you a license. Dad said or mom said, “Okay, here are the keys to the car.” And then you came in late or came in with the tire not exactly right, or it wasn’t even the right tire. “Where’d you even get that tire?” “You have––you’ve had––the right to drive the car. But we’re removing the right; because if you’re irresponsible, we remove the right.”
That’s right. Because every parent knows––we get this––every parent knows that with rights comes responsibility. So, in other words, individual rights must be coupled with individual responsibility or things go bad. In a nation where there are rights without responsibility, it results in anarchy. That liberty without responsibility actually undermines liberty.
That liberty without responsibility ultimately undermines liberty. That liberty––as we’re gonna see––can gobble up liberty. That if everybody demands their individual rights with no consideration for other people and without taking responsibility for the outcome of their liberty, ultimately everybody loses their liberty. This brings us to a really important question, and I’m sure you’re way ahead of me. So, why is there no Bill of Responsibility? Why is there a Bill of Rights in the Constitution, but there’s no Bill of Responsibility? Now, this next part is key. The authors of the Constitution and our founding fathers, throughout their documents, throughout their letters to one another, throughout their letters to their wives, throughout everything they wrote––and they wrote so much––assumed moral guardrails that would provide sort of an impetus for personal responsibility.
They assumed there were these moral, ethical guardrails that everybody understood and that everybody would stay between the guardrails. So, they didn’t really need to expound on “be responsible,” because they just assumed a level of responsibility among the people of America. And this made perfect sense, because there was a bit of a foxhole mentality. They had just come through the Revolutionary War. We’re no longer English. We’re no longer French. We are Americans. There was a value system that was throughout the colonies. They weren’t all Christians, but they all pretty much believed in God and defined him as God of the Old or the New Testament. So, there was synergy around a moral code, an understanding of what it meant to take care of your neighbor. And in those days, you had to take care of your neighbor, because if you didn’t take care of your neighbor, your neighbor wasn’t gonna take care of you. So, there were some assumptions; in fact, throughout the literature of the founding fathers, you find three assumptions that surface, and here they are real quickly.
First of all, there was a consensus of conscience. People generally believed the same things were right and the same things were wrong. There was a consensus around what was right and what was wrong. There was a consensus around divine accountability. The United States, the founding fathers, the colonists, and the people who came through the Revolutionary War had a sense that God had ordained that the United States exist: that God was behind us, that God answered our prayers, that God had given us liberty from England. And there was gratitude to God and a sense of personal and national accountability to God.
And then thirdly, a little more complicated, there was a sense that individual expression was governed by concern for other individuals. That when it came to the Bill of Rights––or when it came to individual rights––individual rights were always expressed with concern for other people. There wasn’t this sense that we have now of “This is my right, and it doesn’t matter how it impacts other people. It doesn’t matter how it impacts my community or my school or my neighbors or the people I work with. This is my right.” There was a sense of “Hey, my individual rights aren’t simply about me. My individual rights, I’m gonna express those by protecting the rights of other individuals.” There was just a different mentality. Now again, this is throughout the literature of that colonial period and that period of the war and following, during the time of the writing of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
The most famous example of this––the one that we all studied in school––is actually in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence. And here it is again, you’ve heard it or read it 1,000 times. But listen to the significance of these words and look for the way they tied the divine to the personal. Here’s what they wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” It’s like, “Right, I mean everybody knows that. Do we have to write this, that all men are created? I mean how else would we get here? Everybody’s created. We got that.” It goes on to say, “That they are endowed by their Creator…” here we go, “with certain unalienable rights.”
So, where did your individual right come from? They would say, “Well, your individual right came from your individual God. Your individual rights came from God. We don’t have rights because the government gives us rights. We have rights because God gave us rights.” These rights actually came from God. “That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” There was an assumed––this is so important––there was an assumed connection between God and rights. They believed that we as individuals––and as a nation––were accountable to God for how we exercised our individual rights.
Now, consider John Adams. I picked John Adams because John Adams was against slavery, and John Adams apparently never owned a slave. John Adams, who was the second President of the United States and the vice president for George Washington for a couple of terms, wrote so much stuff. Here’s what John Adams wrote. Think about the significance of these words: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.” Our Constitution was written, made, created only for people who are moral. That is, they believed there is a moral sense of right and wrong that stood outside of their personal understanding of right and wrong.
Listen to the second half: “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” In other words, if there is no moral consensus, the sense and sense of divine accountability––this grand experiment of personal freedom––will fail. If there is no sense of morality that stands outside a human being, and if there’s no sense of divine accountability, this experiment in freedom will fail. Liberty will devour liberty. Eventually, my rights will compete with your rights. And when my rights compete with your rights, who’s to say who is right? When rights collide, the courts decide. That was not the intent of the founding fathers. Because when rights collide, if the courts are gonna decide, it means that suddenly our government must create law after law after law to address every single possible eventuality.
Do you know why we have so many laws? Because the laws have to cover every single eventuality. Because American citizens are constantly looking for loopholes. “Aha, that one’s not covered; I’m free. Aha, you didn’t say it exactly right; you gotta let me go. And in a culture where everybody’s looking for a loophole because their only accountability is to government and to written law, ultimately, the courts have to decide. Now, here’s the problem with law. Let me talk about law for a second. I’m so glad that we’re a nation of law. I totally get that. But here’s the problem: for the most part, the law represents the minimum requirement. The law answers the question: “How low can I go?”
“How fast can I drive without getting pulled over? How fast can I drive and get pulled over, but they’re not gonna give me a ticket? How fast can I drive where they’re still gonna me pull over and give me a ticket but not take me to jail? How fast can I drive and not take my license? How fast…” In other words, where is the line? Where is the limit? And what happens is, where there’s only law and no sense of accountability or divine accountability, personally, nationally, or corporately, we go as low as we can possibly go. Because after all, we wanna know exactly where the line is. The law is powerless. The law doesn’t inspire greatness. The law can’t inspire excellence, and the law can’t inspire or create virtue. It can only answer the question: “How low can you go?” Traffic laws are important, but traffic laws do not create courteous drivers.
Take tax laws, for instance. The tax laws cannot make you generous or financially responsible. Civil laws don’t make you civil. Neighborhood association standards don’t make you a good neighbor, right? DUI laws don’t inspire you to sobriety. Assault and battery laws won’t make you a good husband, and a marriage license won’t make you a good wife. The right to free speech won’t make you kind. Laws are powerless to inspire. There is no law that will inspire you to marital faithfulness. There is no law that will inspire you to fidelity, because that’s not the job of the law. And the law is powerless to play that very important role in society. So, where does that come from?
As a result–– and here’s the bad of all the bad news––as a result, here’s where we are. We have individual rights regulated by law. Individual rights: freedom to do whatever you want, say what you want, sleep with who you want, run around with who you want, do what you want on Facebook, be crude, take off your clothes, protest a soldier’s funeral, or hackle the president’s speech. We’ve got all kinds of incredible laws. But this is what I don’t want you to miss. This is a recipe for you and for me to be as selfish as we can legally be and, in this system, become nothing more than an exercise of power. And at the end of the day, the culture in which we will find ourselves––the culture in which we are finding ourselves––is simply this: the rich will always rule the poor, women will continue to become more and more of a commodity, children will always be the victims. “If it’s legal, it’s moral. If it’s legal, it’s moral. If it’s legal, it’s moral.” Law informs conscience. “Well, how do I know how bad I’m supposed to feel about something?” “Well, what does the law say?” And everybody looks for a loophole.
Pretty sad, isn’t it. And here’s the zinger. You may even be surprised to hear me say this. Maybe you disagree––I hope I’m wrong––but I’m convinced, like many of you are, that our legal system is permanently decoupled from divine and moral absolute. It’s permanent. We’re not going back. That train has left the station. We are permanently decoupled from a sense of divine and moral absolutes as a nation. But there is hope, and the hope is you.
Two thousand years ago, the apostle Paul––we talk about him a lot here––wrote letters that became part of the New Testament. We call these valuable, valuable letters the “Books of the Bible.” And in one of these letters, he’s writing to a group of churches in Galatia, a Roman province of Greek-thinking people.
And so, he’s writing to Gentiles, and there was some confusion about their relationship to the Old Testament. And they were being taught by some people, “Hey, you gotta do the entire Old Testament. You gotta keep the entire Old Testament law: the dietary laws, what you wear, where you go, Sabbath, all this stuff.” So, he’s writing them a letter explaining to them, “No, no, no, no, no, no. Now that you are Christians and you’re Jesus’ followers, you are not under the Old Testament law. You’re under a different law. You approach life in a different way.” And so, in making his case, he makes a statement that is so relevant for us today. And I believe it gives us direction in terms of how we should respond to our nation and our nation’s laws. He gives us direction, as Christians, to how we should respond––don’t miss this––to our personal freedom and the moment when, all of a sudden, we realize, “I’m free. I’m free. I’m free.”
And in this little piece of this letter, he tells us how we’re to respond to our freedom. Now if you’re not a Christian, you can do this anyway. You can do it for free. You don’t have to be a Christian to do this. But if you’re a Christian, this is what we’re called to, and this would make all the difference in the world. Here’s what he says. He says, “You, my brothers and sisters…”––talking to the Christians in Galatia––”You my brothers and sisters were called to be free.” And then, here’s the command. “But do not use your freedom,” your stewardship of freedom, “to indulge the flesh,” because he knows me, and he knows you. Two thousand years later, he knows what you’re up to. He knows that when everybody’s away, and you can watch anything you want on television, you go as low as you can possibly go. He knows that when everybody is gone, nobody is gonna make you do your homework anymore. You go as low as you can possibly go. When nobody’s looking, you do the kinds of things that you only do when nobody is looking. Our natural tendency is to abuse our freedom and to consume it on ourselves because… “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. But you’re Jesus’ followers. You’re Christians.”
Do not leverage your freedom for your personal benefit to the neglect of what God has called you to do. Don’t ask the question, “What can I get by with?” Don’t ask the question, “How low can I go?” Don’t ask the question, “Where’s the line?” Don’t ask the question, “Well, is there a law against it?” Instead, God says something else, and it is so powerful. Imagine a day in America where the Christians did this. He says, “Instead, do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh, rather serve one another humbly in love.” And here’s the thought: “No one can make you do that.” There is no law that can force you to serve another person. The law will not inspire you to serve another person. The law will not force you to serve another person. The law will simply draw a line on how selfish you can be.
And Paul says, “Look. God has called us to leverage our freedom and to use our freedom to do something for other people. You have a right not to, but you have the opportunity to.” Then, he takes us to one of the most common and well-known phrases in all of the Bible. And the apostle Paul swings back around about 25 years later to say, “This is still at the epicenter of the thing that should drive our behavior as Christians.” He says, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”
Just when you get up in the morning, and you think about how free you are. “I can say whatever I want, do whatever I want, assemble wherever I want, use my money anyway I want. I’m free. I’m free. I’m gonna leverage my freedom to love my neighbor as myself. I’m gonna do unto others, all day long, as I would have others do unto me. I’m gonna treat my girlfriend the way I would want a boy to treat my younger sister. I’m gonna treat my wife the way that, one day, I hope my daughter’s husband treats her. I’m gonna respond to my husband the way that, hopefully, one day, a young lady will respond to my son when they’re married. I’m gonna treat the people I work with the way that I wish I had been treated when I worked at that other company. I’m gonna treat the people who work for me the way I wish my boss had treated me. I’m gonna treat my boss the way that, hopefully, one day, someone would treat me when I’m the boss. I’m gonna look at everybody in my life through the lens of ‘How would I wanna be treated?’ And I’m just gonna do that.” Imagine one single day in America where everybody did that.
Do you know what? This is why Paul is so brilliant. If everybody did that, there would almost be no need for any of our laws. Because when a nation looks up and asks the question, “How good can I be?” all the detail, all the fine print, becomes irrelevant. Because when you and I leverage our freedom for the sake of the other people around us, the world becomes, instantly, a better place.
Now, here’s the most amazing thing. The apostle Paul, 2,000 years ago, looks into the future, and he says, “Hey, 21st century American church, if you don’t get this right, let me tell you what’s going to happen. If you decide to leverage your individual rights for only you as an individual, if you forget that you are part of a community, if you forget that you’re to leverage your rights for everybody and for the sake of everybody else in the community, if you forget that you have been called by God to do unto others as God through Christ has done for you, let me tell you what it’s gonna look like. Here’s what happens when life becomes all about your individual rights.” This is unbelievable. Here’s what he says.
“If you bite and devour each other, watch out, or you will be destroyed by each other.” If you bite and devour each other. In other words: “Well, that’s mine. Well, that’s mine. Well, I was here first. So, that’s my right. Well, you know what the law says. I’m gonna get an attorney. I’m getting two attorneys. I’m getting a female attorney, okay? I’m gonna find the meanest attorney.” It’s like, “Sue early and sue often.” That’s kind of our whole thing. He says, “Look, if you decide and this whole thing devolves into individual rights: every man for himself, every woman for herself, every family for themselves, every community for themselves…” He says, “Let me just tell you where it goes. You will become like dogs biting and devouring one another, and at the end of the day, you will be destroyed by each other.”
We will devour ourselves in our quest to be free as individuals. But the church, and only the church, can turn that around, not by becoming a unified voting block but by becoming a unified obedient block. We wake up every single day and decide, “I am going to leverage my freedom for the sake of protecting your freedom rather than simply exercising my own.” Imagine a day like that in America.
I’m gonna give you four little statements that are applications. These aren’t specific but are just to get your mind going. What does that look like? It looks like this. The first statement to consider is this: Do what’s just, not what you can justify. I’m not gonna ask, “How low can I go?” or “What can I get by with?” I’m gonna ask, “How high can I reach?” and “How can I help?” If you would like for everyone you work with at work to pass out, just walk up and say, “How can I help?” “Oh, we don’t do that around here. See, around here, I help myself, and you help yourself. And I try to help myself to some of what you’re helping yourself to. But we don’t help each other.” Now, you just walk in tomorrow and say, “Hey, how can I help? How can I help? How can I help?”
Husbands, I’m telling you, you have to make sure your wife is laying down when you say, “Honey, how can I help?” It’s like, “Who are you? Someone stole my husband’s body.” Teenage kids, if you like to get control of the family, if you wanna control your parents, here’s the simplest way to control your parents. By saying, “Mom, what can I do to help? Dad, what can I do to help?” No teenager asks that. Why? Because it’s all about me, myself, and I. And our heavenly Father says, “Look. I look down on a sin-sick world, and I ask the question ‘What can I do to help?’ And the only way to help them was to send them a Savior. It cost me my Son. The least you can do is to turn to one another. I’m not asking you to die for anybody. I’m just asking you to ask the question, ‘What can I do to help?’ Because it’s not just about what I can justify. I want to do what’s just.”
The second statement is this: Do what’s responsible, not simply what’s permissible. Do what’s responsible, not what can you get by with. Not “What can I get by with?” but “What’s the most responsible thing?” Now, look up here. If you are not willing to take responsibility for the potential outcome of a decision, then don’t do it. Somebody has to become responsible for your irresponsibility. I mean, how many years are we gonna talk about the debt of this country. Look, here’s the deal. We as a generation are having to take responsibility for a previous generations’ irresponsibility. It’s an individual thing as well. If you aren’t responsible, eventually someone has to take responsibility for your irresponsibility.
The third statement is this: Do what’s moral, not what’s modeled. Come on. Listen. You can define immorality anyway you want to. Whatever immorality is to you, however you define it, immorality––you know this, you’re smart people––is undermining the integrity of our country. We cannot afford, financially, to continue on our moral/immoral path. It’s impossible. At some point, a generation has to stand up and say, “Hey, it doesn’t matter how low we can go. It doesn’t matter if it’s illegal. There’s gonna be a consensus of morality, and we’re gonna do this for other peoples’ sake and for the next generation’s sake. We are done taking our moral cue from the people around us.” You do what’s moral, not what’s modeled. Because in your community, whatever your community is, and in the world in which you live, you are already seeing and paying for a culture that has said, “I can do what I want, with whom I want, when I want, as long as it’s legal and there are no consequences.” There are consequences. You are part of a community, and it costs all of us and, ultimately, undermines all our freedom.
And the last statement is sort of the catch-all. It’s this: Just honor God. And that’s complicated. Honor God. What does that mean? It means every time you make a decision, you ask, “What would be most honoring to God?” Oh, that’s deep. Oh, that’s deep. “What would be most honoring to God?” And do you know what’s interesting? Regardless of how much you know the Bible, regardless of whether or not you grew up in church, you know the answer to this question. Intuitively. It is self-evident. And this question points us back to the founders’ belief that individual rights assume individual accountability to God.
Last thing, and I’m done. This is so amazing to me. John Adams, again. John Adams, he looks into the future. And he sees you, and he sees me. Seriously. And he writes a letter. He writes us a letter from the past. John Adams-–this is so cool––he died on July the 4, 1826, the same day as Thomas Jefferson. They died on the same day. They were friends, and they were enemies, and they were friends again. He died on July 4, and he wrote you a letter. And here’s what he said, “Posterity…” That’s you. That’s future generations. “People I’ll never meet, places I’ll never see, an age that I wouldn’t be able to imagine, future Americans, hear me. ‘You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom.’ Now, you’ll read about it in history books. You’ll see some black and white drawings. You’ll see some movies, but you’ll never smell it. You’ll never experience the fear and the dread that we experienced. You won’t have had to sit through hours and hours and hours of meetings as we wordsmith this document that would set the direction for a whole nation. You don’t have any idea how much it cost us physically. You don’t know what it cost our family. You have no idea what it cost us to secure your freedom.” Then he says this, “I hope you will make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it.”
So, I got an idea. “Red and yellow, black and white, we’re all precious in his sight.” Republicans and Democrats, do you know why you’re a Republican? You’re a Republican because of what you’ve heard, what you’ve experienced, and where you’re educated. Do you know why you’re a Democrat? Because of the way you were raised, what you’ve experienced, and what you’ve heard. You know why you’re a Libertarian? Because you can’t make up your mind. No, you’re a Libertarian because you don’t ever wanna win an election. No, you’re a Libertarian because you’d like to stand up now and share. Because––I understand this––you have a unique view of freedom. We all do. The question is, what are we gonna do with it? Are we gonna squander it? Because John Adams said, “Look, if you think, for a minute, these individual rights that we are handing to you can survive a nation that gives up on morality and gives up on God, you are kidding yourself. We created the document; we know what it hinges on. You dare not turn your back on the divine, otherwise this experiment and liberty will fail.”