When I was a kid, my father became active in politics, so my brothers and I were drafted to help him, even though Dad was a Republican and I was starting to see things from the Democrat’s point of view. On election nights, the townspeople would go to the court house and watch Russ Lawson, the superintendent of the county highway department, climb a ladder to post the votes as they were phoned in from the far-flung metropolises of Amo, Cartersburg, and North Salem. The Republicans would always win, by huge margins. It was like watching the Saturday morning wrestling matches on television, you just knew Baron von Raschke was going to beat Dick the Bruiser through some nefarious manipulation when the referee wasn’t watching. So I developed a certain sympathy for the underdog, for the little guy.
I would watch Russ Lawson climb up and down the ladder until I was bored, then would wander across the atrium and read the Declaration of Independence that hung on the wall. When I was little, my brother Glenn told me it was the original Declaration of Independence, which the federal government kept in Danville, hidden in plain view, to fool potential thieves. And I believed him. It made perfect sense. I would stand there and read it. “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…”
I knew what life and liberty were, at least as well as any kid possibly could. People talked about those things all the time. But the pursuit of happiness? What was that about? I noticed I wasn’t guaranteed happiness, I was only promised I could pursue it.
A man named John Locke coined the phrase the pursuit of happiness, which Thomas Jefferson appropriated for the Declaration of Independence. Locke meant not merely the pursuit of pleasure, as we often understand the word happy. Locke believed, as did Jefferson, that the pursuit of happiness meant having the freedom to make decisions that result in the best life possible for us. Men and women must be free to make the decisions and choices that lead to the best life, the happiest life, they can imagine. Provided, of course, it doesn’t harm someone else’s chances for a happy life.
We’ve been reflecting on the qualities of healthy nations. We’ve said in healthy nations, those who can help those can’t, while holding accountable those who won’t. Healthy nations give careful thought to their alliances, commitments, and promises, and once made, honor them. They give their word, then keep their word. Healthy nations are not defined by their borders, but by their character. Healthy nations devote their energy to uniting people around noble ideals. Last week, we said that healthy nations live fully in the present and prepare wisely for the future.
Today, I want to say that healthy nations make it possible for its citizens to pursue happiness, so they might have the best lives possible. We don’t ask a government to make us happy. We simply ask that government not impede our chances for happiness, our pursuit of happiness, by acting in ways that harm us.
Here’s an analogy. This morning we dedicated Matt and Anne Durbin’s son, Jacob. Now is it Matt and Anne’s job as parents to make sure Jacob is happy the rest of his life? Is that a parent’s job? No, of course not. That will be Jacob’s responsibility. But it is Matt and Anne Durbin’s responsibility to raise Jacob in such a manner so that happiness is a real possibility for him. While they cannot provide him with happiness—Jacob will have to find that within himself and in his relationships with others—they can make sure they do not impede his opportunities for happiness. Provided, of course, Jacob’s happiness isn’t contingent on someone else’s misery.
Healthy governments cannot accept responsibility for my happiness or yours. We wouldn’t want them to. But we can say to government, “Do not construct a nation that makes our happiness impossible to attain.” Just as we can say to parents, “You are not responsible for your children’s happiness. But you must not parent them in such a way that makes their happiness impossible.”
Incidentally, religions are notorious for inhibiting the opportunities for human happiness. How often have you met a man or woman who got themselves saved, then went around making everyone else miserable? Jesus spoke to this. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You travel across sea and land to make a single convert, and when he is converted, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15)
So it is our habit of hampering the happiness of others that we must guard against.
When I first became a pastor, a woman came to me and told me she was leaving her husband. He paid no attention to her, was cruel and unkind, and making her miserable. She has asked him to participate in marriage counseling, but he had refused. I had been taught by the church that divorce was never acceptable accept in cases of sexual infidelity, so urged her to stay with him. I showed her in the Bible where it said that. Matthew 5:32: “Those who divorce their spouse, except for sexual immorality, makes their spouse the victim of adultery…” You know what I did to that poor woman? I told her, in so many words, that her happiness was unimportant, and that she should remain with a man who each and every day prevented her pursuit of happiness and joy. Thank God, she ignored me. She left him, eventually met someone else who took her right to happiness as seriously as his own, and they’re still together, and still happy.
A few times each week, I drive over to Brownsburg to pick up our granddaughter Madeline from her other grandparent’s house. I bring her to our house, Joan gives her a snack, and if Madeline will permit me, I sit her on my lap and tell her stories about wonderful people who touch the world with beauty by helping to make happiness a possibility for others. I’d like to tell her stories about each of you. Can I do that? But then, I guess that will be up to you, won’t it?
Let me close with a query I’ve written for this occasion:
Are you careful not to hinder another person’s possibilities for happiness and joy? Do you work to make sure others have the freedom to create the best lives they possibly can?