Find the United States of America on a world map. Locate Texas, the most sacred of soils. Where does Texas end and the lower portions of the planet begin? We are able to tell because of imaginary lines, usually drawn around rivers or deserts, or plains or mountains. Something makes a "break" in the topography of one state or nation.
Boundaries do not necessarily divide. They can just as easily give shape to what might otherwise be indistinct. One recognizes bodies of thought in the shape of a nation or a state. Borders do not necessarily divide persons. They may just as easily describe some of what it takes to be a citizen in a place. In America, that would include religious tolerance, freedom of speech, the right to keep and bear arms, the right to assembly, a free (if currently quite biased) press.
If anyone wants to live here, in America, we often take the tired, the sick, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, often to their initial detriment, but usually to their eventual well being. We do expect immigrants to do what all the other immigrants did; learn the language, respect the rights of others, grow with us, face our common foes and just generally get along.
Almost any American can fill in the blanks of this phrase, "…among these are ______, ________ and the ______________ of _____________________.
Yes, the holy words of Americana, among which are the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The word "rights," the plural use here, is analogous to the singular use Paul makes for the "gifts of the Spirit" in Galatians 5:22, one Spirit, one gift, with many manifestations, all good and kindly, filled with compassion and patience, mercy and long suffering, content to speak the word and courageous to accept what comes then, knowing that history comes from God and flows down a time-channel just as a providential God intends.
The plural use of the word "rights" in reference to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness accentuates their singularity. Each one, life and liberty and the opportunity to chase off after happiness as each of us understands happiness, stands alone, a lesser trinity than the Holy One-in-Three but each still required to give life to the other. Imagine life without liberty. Try to conceive of life and liberty without the means to pursue happiness. The Founders knew their lives could be denied them, so life was fundamental. Their liberty could vanish in a moment, so they worked to protect life and liberty but that was not enough. The Founders, Christian and Deist, wished to do more than live and breathe free.
So, Jefferson, emboldened by Locke, added the right to hold property, as Smith and Locke and Hume agreed, in one way or the other. Material acquisition would not do for America, however. There would have to be something more ephemeral, not amorphous, visceral and mind based, all at the same time.
Jefferson rendered the right to acquire and hold property to be, instead, the right to "pursue happiness." No nation, even one conceived in liberty and (barely, in beginning) dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, could possibly guarantee that all, or any, could apprehend happiness. Happiness is fleeting, quite because fear and greed make men tremulous, at best.
No, propositionally, at first, and then legistatively, government, a central authority, could at best commit itself to protect and promote its citizenry's right to chase happiness. How,if those words were more than the sound of a hollow reed, could a central authority enable its citizenry to pursue happiness?
The central authority must protect its constituents from burdensome taxation, inefficient government, oppressive legislation, rampant corruption and a faulty judiciary. The central authority must not take too much from its citizens and must return as much of what it took as possible, at the least in the form of efficient and honest government. The central authority could govern but not rule. Leadership would not take the form of tyranny.
Alas, such has not always been the case in our land. Arbitrary decision making, wickedness in high places, the rulers of the darkness of this world, have all met in Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Austin, Houston and Dallas, still committed to the pursuit of happiness, not as Jefferson adapted it, but as Smith, Hume and Locke were interpreted to mean, the right to hold private property. Man might be happy apart from acquisition, if no one forced him to servitude because of his peculiar standing.
Which, hurriedly, brings us religious, to the matter of denominations, conventions and associations, since they are the central authorities around which we gather to give shape to our autonomous local congregations, when, and only when, such local bodies prayerfully choose to render up some part of their autonomy to the larger body, usually in treasure, certainly in decision making. The central authority recognizes the difference in missional/doctrinal topography between our cooperating churches and those who choose not to cooperate with us, for whatever reason.
Denominations cannot promise life or liberty, for they are the source of neither force. They can, if we acquiesce foolishly, however, make difficult the pursuit of happiness, as they govern capriciously, spend wastefully or require at the hands of the churches an obeisance objectionable to the olfactries, human or divine.
Such is the nature of central authorities that they first feed from their people and then, as they decline, feed on their people. They are predatory in nature, then, and the more as they present their mission as distant and mystical, certainly beyond the scope or even the understanding of the minor bodies revolving in their orbit.
James McGregor Burns identifies four characteristics of a declining democracy, which I now apply to the central governing authority of denominations. These four signs are as follows: outside pressures impinging on them; low quality policies with no natural constituency; apathetic, dependent adherents; mystification of the decision making process.
Of these four, the state convention of churches I know most about, the BGCT has all four. A smaller, more efficient and zealous body impinges on their natural territory, constantly shifting sloganeering in place of policies of change, dependent bodies of constituents and an absolutely suicidal decision making process, all combine to the continuing decline of its influence.
If one takes glee over the death of a once productive social force, there must be some series of unhappy events trailing in the wake of the celebrant, and some flaw in his character. Vengeance is a dish best not served at all, cold or warm. If you see how a little change could forestall, or even repeal, the decline, but speak not, this is a form of reptilian vengeance; cold-blooded, waiting to be sated, venomous and vile.
To know what is wrong is only half the cure but it is a start. In the days to come, I hope to talk respectfully about persons, even those who have shown no respect to me. I do so without rancor but with some dread.
Something good is dying.
Few seem to care.