Opinion – Richard Nelson: In considering our ‘pursuit of happiness,’ think about our stewardship of freedom

“We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal that they are endowed by their Creator, with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Thus begins America’s founding political document penned 248 years ago by Thomas Jefferson, with notable guidance from John Adams, Ben Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. The daring political statement recognized divine truth as the wellspring of human rights. And it served as our nation’s founding political charter with government “by the consent of the governed.”

As we near a quarter millennia of our nation’s existence, it’s worth taking stock as to how this experiment in self-government is working out in relation to our perceived sense of happiness. In terms of prosperity, our Founding Fathers could never have imagined our incredible productivity and wealth creation. U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was $27.36 trillion in 2023 according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Median household income, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, was $74,580 in 2022.

Richard Nelson

Many gauge personal happiness by their jobs, bank accounts, homes, leisure time, and the cars they drive. These things are necessities, but not all Americans have enjoyed the fruits of a robust economy. For many other Americans who derive inordinate importance on the size of their bank accounts, homes, and cars, they are finding that these material things fail to provide life’s deepest needs.

According to the 2024 World Happiness Report (WHR), the United States dropped eight places and now stands at 23, following the United Arab Emirates. Factors contributing to happiness include gross domestic product, freedom, life expectancy, relational and social support, and perception of corruption. The numbers vary based on demographics.

As we consider Independence Day and reflect on the patriots who appealed to economic determination, the rule of law, accompanied by cries of “no taxation without representation,” let’s not forget the significant numbers who were deeply religious. They saw God as the Author of their lives, the Giver of rights, and the One whom they were ultimately devoted to. They desired religious freedom, a disestablished church, and freedom of conscience that allowed them to pursue public life according to religious conviction.

Leading patriots like Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Roger Sherman, and John Witherspoon sought to synthesize Christian principles into political and public life, however imperfectly. They attempted to balance God and government, economic pursuit and personal piety. But did they leave a legacy of happiness?

A CBS News Poll conducted earlier this year found that 76% of Americans are fairly happy or very happy. 23% are not too happy or not happy at all. The survey found that the number one factor that contributed to their personal happiness was their family life at 72%. Mental health was second at 63% and leisure and hobbies at 61%. Interestingly, when things are going well with family, 86% are happy. These numbers point to another element of our personhood — our emotional and relational health. Related to these elements is that we are spiritual beings with spiritual needs.

The Christian worldview teaches that we are made to walk with God. Yes, we live in a material physical world and are made to work, build homes, get married, raise families, participate in community. But we are also made to walk with Him. American Revolutionaries threw off encumbrances that shackled them from fulfilling what they saw as a divine mandate to live as good stewards of their lives in freedom. In our pursuit of happiness, we’d do well to consider if we’re stewarding this gift of freedom. In particular, may each of us ponder if we’re walking well with the Author of Freedom and satisfying ourselves in Him.

Richard Nelson is the executive director of Commonwealth Policy Center. He is also the host of the Commonwealth Matters Podcast on Spotify.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *