We Hold These Rights, Part I: Of Whom Do We Hold?

Preface: In four weeks, I’ll be going to a conference on the Bill of Rights, sponsored by The Bill of Rights Institute, on Civil Liberty and the Constitution. As part of this conference, I have been asked to read a number of historical documents, written by the framers, their mentors, and those who lived, legislated, and worked within that Constitutional frame. This resonates deeply with me, as I have been struggling for some time now with concepts such as “rights,” “freedom,” and “justice.”  What follow are my thoughts.

If the Declaration of Independence had an author other than Thomas Jefferson, it was John Locke. This, we all learn in History class. Okay, we learn it in MY history class. But I’ll be honest, I’d never actually sat down and read John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, which I imagine puts me in company with 99.9% of my readers.

After getting over my relief at finding that actual contact with the text didn’t contradict my years of learning from others what “Locke said” about government (and better yet, that it didn’t contradict my years of TEACHING what other people had told me “Locke said” about government,* I began to truly come to grips with the text, and began to realize just how derivative from Locke our founding document is:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal,”

I have heard these words since before I really knew what they meant. Almost every schoolkid in America would come out with at least that if you asked him or her what the Declaration said.*** Fewer would be able to go on:

“that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these rights are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This derives directly from Locke, who wrote:

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind… that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not another’s pleasure: and… there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours.

Of course, Locke is not basing his argument for equality nearly as much upon that which we would today call “reason,” in the scientific sense, as he is basing it upon theistic and Christian principles. Locke did not, as modern atheists do, think of reason and religion as being naturally opposed, but as natural allies of one another. And lest I be mistaken, the intent of this entry is not to contend that America was founded by Christians or that it should as a matter of policy endorse Christianity, still less that it should impose Christianity (or any belief of conscience) upon its citizens. But the evidence should be enough to assert that the principles upon which this nation was founded (if we take the Declaration to be the founding) are principles which explicitly take their justification from a theistic and a Christian foundation. “We hold these truths,” say the founders. Hold them based on what? Scientific reason, divorced from scripture makes a mockery of the idea that all people are created equal. It would be scientifically ridiculous to maintain such, both then and now. How are they equal? They are not equal in physical strength, command of wealth, social fluency or mental faculties, or anything that explicitly serves the state or community.

Now, what science most definitely shows us is that trying to sort people into superior and inferior classes based on broad identities of race, gender, wealth, ethnicity, ancestry or any number of chauvinistic nonsense is ridiculous, but that is a far cry from the dictum that thunders into our souls the equality of man with man, and man with woman. In contrast (and increasingly) we see inequality governing our relationships until the day we all die.

That, perhaps, is the indisputable equality, though the poor are certainly “more equal” than the rich in the rate at which they meet that fate.**** Certainly they suffer more along the way to it. And my atheist friends would likely say that this is enough to make people equal: that they all suffer and die the same. Certainly I agree that this makes them feel equal to each other, but then, I already agree with Locke that people are equal as children of God. I don’t have to come up with additional justifications for equality. But as true as this fact is, it hardly makes people of unequal abilities equally valuable to a human society in the present, unless the very act of treating all people equally strengthens society in some concrete way. If any studies have been done on this, I am not aware of them, and would appreciate being enlightened.

However, regardless of whether such studies have been done, and regardless of their results, it is surely obvious that Locke and his disciples were not using them. Their rationale for founding a nation upon the ideal of equality was a recognition, however flawed and however badly realized, of the equality of humanity before a Divine Creator. Of course, it was a completely hypocritical recognition. The image of Thomas Jefferson looking up from the Declaration and watching his slaves trudge home, broken in body and spirit, while considering himself the champion of equality forces us to either laugh or weep. But the words he wrote, however hypocritical, became, inexorably part and parcel of freeing the grandchildren of those slaves, and became the great “promissory note” which Martin Luther King presented to a complacent white America, who had then no alternative but either to admit their hypocrisy, or to grant equal civil rights to their black American brothers and sisters.

Of course, full equality is not yet here, but perhaps we can see now that it is more than fitting that the man who presented that promissory note held the title “Reverend,” and dared to claim that equality was not only politically wise and morally right, but a divine command. But why do I bring this up? Do I mean to say that one must be a Christian, or even a theist, to be a “real American,” or to claim, defend, or advocate for rights? Not in the slightest: I’m not anyone’s morality police. You do what you do because you have chosen to do it. You don’t owe me an explanation until you violate someone else’s rights. But if we want to know where our rights come from, in the minds of those who articulated them, we should look with our eyes open, whether or not we agree with them. And from Martin Luther King back to the very oldest of American principles, preceding even the independence of the American states, we see a strong belief that the rights we hold, we hold of God.

*this happens more often than history teachers would like to admit. Relying on secondary sources** has occasionally resulted in me inadvertently “teaching” bad facts. In my defense, I have also caught actual history textbooks teaching bad facts. Not just “leaving them out” but teaching positive untruths.

**yes, I know, I should never do this, but the thing about teaching history is, well, there’s a lot of it. Even those of us who teach have to skim and read the summaries at times.

***hell, a lot of them would come out with this if you asked them what the Constitution said, but that’s an all-too-common confusion.

****I always sigh when I read somebody who claims that the poor are “more likely to die” than the rich. How ridiculous: they’re equally likely to die.