Journey Post 33—The Idea of America and the logs that keep us from seeing it
We are no longer “at risk of repeating history”…
We are losing it
NOTE TO MY READERS: It has been nearly a year since I published my last Journey Post. This post is lengthy, the equivalent of four or five different ones. For the sake of convenience, I have divided this one into seven sections. You can read them separately; otherwise, you’d better plan a good hour to read the entire essay.
By way of summary: I have broadened the original focus of the past several posts: that’s why the above subtitle says that we are “losing” history, not simply repeating it. “Losing history” expresses my concern that we are losing–or have lost–our historical sense of American identity–a broader and deeper problem that includes my earlier concerns that the loss of free speech and religious liberty has given rise to fear in our public square. We no longer seem to know who we are as a people and are not living out who we have traditionally said we are. Our divisiveness has become so pervasive that some have expressed fear that we are heading once again toward civil war. But I maintain some hope that we can resolve divisions short of that kind of catastrophe. That will necessitate the kind of “reminder” I am giving in this essay.
AN EXTENDED ESSAY ON SEEING WHO WE ARE
“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” —Henry David Thoreau
“Mister, I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” —Something I heard in a movie once
Section 1, Introduction: The Importance of who you are and what you see
In John Steinbeck’s novel, East of Eden, a perceptive Irish immigrant is speaking with an American-born Chinese cook. The time is around 1900, when Chinese still wore the queue, acted subservient around whites, shuffled when they walked, and spoke a pidgin English (“no talkee, no trouble”). The Irishman realizes the Chinese man is quite capable of highly articulate English, and asks, why the pidgin? “To be understood,” was the reply. The Irishman was puzzled: “How do I understand you?” The reply: “You are one of the rare people who can separate your observation from your preconception. You see what is, where most people see what they expect” (p 163).
This post is an essay about seeing what is. Steinbeck’s Chinese cook was referring to expectations that keep us from seeing people for who they are. Expectations are pre-judgments (prejudice)—a “log” in the eye that prevents us from seeing a person past the color of their skin or their political views or their religion or their mental capacity or their dress … an almost infinite number of things. Prejudice comes, according to one song, by being “carefully taught.” But we’re all open to learning prejudice because there is something within us humans that wants to think we’re better than the next person. Call it pride or self-centeredness or sin, it blinds us to what’s real and the value of others. And it can also make us fear others and their differences, or instill fear as a defense.
“Wow, I feel like I’m being judged,” you might say. No, not really. Judgment can mean condemning, but it also means discerning, seeing things as they are: we need to see clearly if we’re going to live together. We all have prejudices. Prejudice is a log that blinds or distorts our vision. The first step to remove a log is to become aware of it. This post is also an essay about becoming aware of logs.
I did the same thing in my last Journey Post, where I attempted to help fellow Christians become aware of a log that keeps us from seeing something important about following Jesus. One of the last things he told his followers was to “make disciples”—apprentices who would learn from Jesus to be like him. During the 1970s, something happened to redirect the focus of the American church: well-intentioned people got lured into following an evangelical political agenda as a means to “restore” Christian values in America. In the course of the 1980s, evangelicals got a taste of political power. I think it caused us (including me) to miss what Chuck Colson and others tried to remind us. (Colson was the Nixon hatchet man who was famously born again during the Watergate mess.) He said: “Salvation doesn’t arrive on Air Force One.” Legislating morality won’t cure our national ills. It cannot work because it doesn’t reform the inner person. Making rules doesn’t attract people to Jesus; it pushes them away.
In this post, I’m aiming to remind all Americans who we are: whether Christian or not, Muslim, theist or atheist, none, conservative, liberal, etc. Who we are is something we all share in common as Americans. But in order to do that, I need to help us become aware of some logs, developments that have been quietly ripping at the heart and soul of America and distorting our identity. I said “quietly” because many people haven’t even noticed them. These developments have been taking place over the past fifty years.
Who we are as a people is closely tied to something that historians call the “idea of America.”
What is this “idea of America”? It is not the same as the “American dream.” The idea is what has allowed the dream to become a reality in the past. The dream doesn’t seem very real any more.
The idea of America is what our Founders saw, their vision of what America would become when they determined to separate the Colonies from Mother England. Their idea gave America its identity, a radical and unique identity among the community of nations at the time. They published their idea for the world to see in 1776.
Red flag! Red flag! You may doubt my credentials for writing what America is about. You hear a Christian talking about the Founding Fathers and you might think: “Here comes the lecture about a ‘Christian nation.’” You won’t hear that here: I would remind you of the Chinese cook and ask you to put expectations and assumptions on hold.
I write this essay as a fellow lover of America, one who thinks we have a good thing worth preserving. I also write as a lover of the disciplines of history, as one who searches out and weighs evidence and seeks truth. I write as one who has learned that history is not a collection of factoids for a test. History is the story of people: our people. It is a revealer of roots, a teller of where we’ve come from, an explainer of what made us the way we are. History reminds us who we are, our identity as a people.
Like many of you, I am deeply troubled by the divisiveness and gridlock in our nation. We’ve always had partisan division in politics, but never on this level. The “culture wars” are not a simple political power play: they are a fight about the meaning of America, with two sides contending for their own idea.
We’ve seen that fight before. It was called the Civil War. The Civil War didn’t finally settle the issues that separated us. They were still there on the day Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomatox. It did begin to eliminate the sectionalism that fundamentally divided us, but it took many years for a reunion of the sections to occur. Reunion was still taking shape at the beginning of the 20th century and did not truly happen until, perhaps, the Depression and Second World War.
In the midst of our current divisiveness, it seems to me that Americans have already lost a real sense of our history. That frightens me. By losing a sense of our history, I mean things like this: when the Civil War is mentioned these days, it often comes across as more about ending slavery and racism: “Lincoln and the good guys versus the racists.” But “racist” is becoming a too-convenient pigeon hole; a modern term (and a log) that makes us miss reality and some really important stuff about why things happened back then. We tend to read present-day understandings and values into the past. That can be dangerous.
Above: Washington and his “Farewell Address”: it was a letter
George Washington warned a ten-year-old America when he left office about the dangers of party and especially sectionalism (in his “Farewell Address”). Sectionalism was very strong in the young United States, and had much to do with the eruption of hostilities in 1861. The arguments were not only about chattel slavery (owning people as property) but about states’ rights. When Robert E. Lee left the Union Army to lead the Army of Northern Virginia, his decision had little to do with slavery and everything to do with his allegiance to his home state and his people (Virginia). Lincoln did want to end slavery, but it has become easy to overlook his main objective: to preserve the Union.
It scares me now that the current presidential campaign is ramping up to a level of rancor that places name calling and character attacks front and center. Among the loudest voices, there is little discussion about resolving issues and uniting the people who have to live together. It sounds more like “us vs. them.” It scares me to think of what Lincoln warned us about shortly before the Civil War. In the midst of a debate with Douglas, he quoted Jesus, saying: “A house divided cannot stand.”
Above: Lincoln speaking at one of his debates with Stephen Douglas
I tend to be an optimist, though I can’t say that I’m terribly hopeful that something good will come out of the presidential election this year. I’m not holding my breath. Candidates talk as if they have the only valid answer—they talk like they know what “the American people” want or need. What I’m not hearing is any serious plan get all Americans to work together, to work at healing a house divided.
The cry of Rodney King still echoes: “Can we just all get along?” There is a much deeper problem that requires an answer oriented toward sacrifice and service and compromise—answers that don’t draw cheers for a politician seeking votes. We’re in need of an answer that would help us settle our divisiveness short of civil war.
In the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage, demonstrations and rhetoric grew violent, heated with hate from both sides. A reporter asked a hypothetical question in a pizzeria about catering a gay wedding. The owner commented that their small family business would not cater one, but would gladly serve gay walk-in customers. I was flabbergasted to hear that one high school coach tweeted an invitation asking people to go with her to burn down that pizzeria.
Most people–though not all—agreed that this was not the way to win a fight in a democracy. We have not historically punished dissenters by violence, threats, or hate speech. This is not the American way.
Really? Who says it’s not the American way? Both left and right use this phrase, “the American way,” as a brush to paint different pictures of America. The right tends to mention the Founders more often. This begs the questions of who, then, are we? Our understanding of who we are, after all, determines the way we do things, including settling divisive disputes. Haven’t we always been able to settle them? Whether we can do that now is a question. The last time America didn’t work, we had a civil war.
Our divisions today are likely just as visceral as the sectionalism that fueled that war. In the past, political leaders have sought compromise. That was what we did when issues seemed intractable. They started with what each side had in common, common interest, common ground, the common good. We still occasionally hear this operating in Congress: what it takes is people who have the will.
Where can we find common ground as a nation? After the 2016 conventions in July, we will be confronted with two very opposite choices for president. You’ll be asked to decide who best represents the principles of the party. Each party will claim to stand for what America is truly about. The brush strokes on their picture of “the American way” will be coming fast and furiously.
When it comes to sorting out who’s right in such a confusing dispute, it’s good to go back to basics, to start at the beginning. That phrase brings to mind the good witch telling Dorothy to start at the beginning and follow the yellow brick road. She could have shown Dorothy how to get home immediately, but she knew that Dorothy would learn some things along with way about the importance of home. Likewise, I could here immediately explain my version of this “idea of America.” But I’ve anticipated that there are some roadblocks to understanding the importance of what the Founders set forth over two centuries ago.
I won’t begin in Jamestown or Plymouth Rock, or England. Places like that represent our roots. The place to begin is Philadelphia during the summer of ’76, where those who met drew up a consensus statement about what those roots meant.
You could think of the Declaration of Independence as a “goal statement.” Its legacy, and why it has had such impact around the world, was not about breaking away from George III to do our own thing because the King violated our rights. Revolutions were occurring all the time. No, the worldwide impact came by virtue of the principles incorporated in that document: they constituted a vision of a different kind of nation. We’re all familiar with their words: after all, we parade them out and celebrate them every 4th of July with fireworks, barbeques, and beer.
What I aim to do here is help us all “catch the vision” they had. To do that, we have to get a handle on those words and what they originally meant. I say that cautiously, because “original meaning” sounds like an esoteric legal wrangle about strict interpretation of the Constitution. Such is not the case, since the Declaration is not a law but guiding principles. (Both documents do stem from the same vision.)
The Founders expected other people to understand what they meant. They called them “self-evident” truths. We must not content ourselves with reading our current understandings or assumptions back into that document. To do so would be a great disservice to ourselves and the Founders—we would miss the value they put upon it.
Do you remember the final line of the Declaration? What they set out was not to “spin” their version of America, subject to unanticipated public reaction or opinion polls. These guys were all in. Listen to the words now and think about the fact that they knew they were going up against the most powerful nation on earth (Great Britain): “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Their “idea” was new and radical and unique.
We find it difficult to see the same thing they did for a number of reasons, most obviously because we are so familiar with the words—in fact, we may be over-familiar with them. We know them so well that they are now part of the scenery of our patriotism, ideas that don’t particularly stand out as we drive past at least once a year. It’s all wonderful, and beautiful, and noble, and profound—like the words of the Gettysburg Address that we memorized in 5th grade. Anyway, are they really much more than empty ideals?
The job of an historian is to get at what really happened and present it in such a way that we have some sense of what those people were thinking back then. I have no illusions about my poor power to do anything near that, but I do hope to inspire you to seriously think about this and perhaps do some investigating on your own.
The words of the Declaration are at the heart of my own concerns about America. Understanding them better has helped me better see how close to the precipice we are. I hope, as you read, that you will take to heart Thoreau’s words (“not what you look at but what you see”) and those of Steinbeck’s Chinese cook: what we see versus what we expect to see when we look….
One question we want to keep before us as we consider their words is this: How are their words essential to the continuation of freedom and democracy, to safety and security in this turbulent and dangerous time? We never want to get to the place where we look back, as Dr. King so eloquently did on the Lincoln Memorial steps in 1963. Remember? He cried out that African Americans were still waiting on the promissory note of America. Were he alive today, I’m sure he would utter the same complaint that the note–as read by all Americans–is still marked “insufficient funds.”
The Declaration contains a long list of “usurpations” by George III, specifying how he had violated our rights. But it first lays out a standard for judging the actions of the King. That standard was a kind of “red line,” a gauntlet thrown down as if to say: “This is our red line; it reflects who we are, and you stepped across that line a long time ago.” So now, we’re going to take action: we will do it or die in the attempt.
Let their words be a reminder to us as we think and complain about the messy divisiveness in our country. A reminder? Here’s what I mean:
A few months ago, I was watching an episode of the TV show, “Blue Bloods.” I was struck by how often the family head had invoked their family identity. He would say it in words like this: “This is what Reagans do, this is who we are.” He would say it or similar words in different settings. One son needs to hear it more often: Danny, a good but impetuous cop, who struggles not to cross the line. When the situation warranted a reminder, the dad was there to give it. The reminder was a means of passing on what the family stands for, what’s important to them. Individuals act according to how they think of themselves and the values they own growing up in a family community.
How we think of ourselves forms the backbone of identity. And our identity plays out every day in every area of life. As a kid, I missed that kind of “this is who we are” foundation. I remember getting rules, but they weren’t connected to anything that would have provided some moral compass by which to make sense of the rules. Each of us needs reminders; they help to make sense of the world and how we relate to it.
There is a parallel between personal or family identity and national identity. Identity at any level takes time and consistency to instill, and of course, needs occasional reminder. I think we’re missing that identity now, as a nation.
There are two times in my life that I struggled with questions about our national identity. One was in 1969 when I returned from Vietnam. The second time was some twenty years later, when Michelle and I returned from missionary service in West Africa.
Section 2, Seeing a problem: What’s wrong with America … or is it me?
My first struggle with American identity came on top of struggles with my own identity.
Without much of a family moral compass, I drifted through much of my life. As I grew up, I did not have a clear sense of who I am, what I was worth, what was right, and I stuffed feelings and thoughts. I lived on a performance treadmill, always looking for acceptance. That sounds pretty pathetic, I know, but I wasn’t aware of it for the most part. (This isn’t about me–it’s really about our country.)
I am eternally grateful to my parents for passing on to me my sense of history, and a sense of idealism stemming from what our history stood for. Without that, I would not be able to write what follows nor maintain any hope that we—as a nation—can ever work together around the divisiveness.
Idealism is often thought of as impractical and unrealistic. I’m an idealist and an optimist. I call myself the realist in our household—though Michelle, my wife, would beg to differ. I call her a pessimist, while she calls herself the realist. (But the glass really is half-full.)
Above: The poster on the left salutes women who stepped up and replaced men in the workforce during World War II. The photo at right was taken from a landing craft unloading U.S. troops onto Normandy Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The pictures are emblematic of the “greatest generation.”
My idealism began as a boy growing up in the early 1950s, a time when “the War” (WW II) was the main reference point for everything around us. I grew up in the shadow of the “greatest generation.” They were everyone I knew: my parents and neighbors, my teachers and most every other adult in my world. They modeled to me what America is all about. They modeled sacrifice and service—whether they had fought on the front lines or did their part back home. Their American identity became a part of my identity. I can still hear my teachers—in the sixties—telling me, “Don’t ever lose your ideals.” Even our class Valedictorian reminded us of that on graduation day. I’ve never quite lost them, even after a lifetime seeing deep problems with self-centeredness and sin in the heart of mankind, even in me.
My parents passed on their sense of history and modeled for me a love and appreciation for its importance. It was part of the environment of my life as long as I can remember. There was the War, of course—though I never could quite picture my mom and dad running around Eagle Rock dodging bullets and bombs.
And there was family. At first, they were pictures—a drawer full of faces stretching to the beginning of time (before World War I). There were our trips in the 1950s and 60s over California’s long and winding roads, explorations of historic places, like the missions, the Gold Rush country, and the homes of my Danish relatives who lived up north.
Grampa (my dad’s father) had emigrated from Denmark in 1906. He sailed “around the Horn” and arrived in San Francisco while it was still smoldering from the great earthquake and fire. Grandma (my mom’s mother) actually rode in a covered wagon—though I don’t know when or where—and taught in a one-room school house. Some relative even fought in the Revolution.
Books were everywhere in our house: old history books, mostly. There were regular trips to the library and book shops. In a little book shop one vacation, I discovered Stephen Lorant’s Lincoln: A Picture Story of His Life. I still remember the old shop owner having much to say about it, and I spent hours looking through Lincoln’s family drawer. Pictures came to mean a lot to me. I think in pictures and my life, from about four, is a mental streaming video. I never forget a place I’ve been to. Every story I’ve read, whether history or not, I visualized in my imagination.
I read few novels, though some, like Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, inspired dreams of time travel. But what I wanted most to know was what really happened, what was real, the real story, the truth. Davy Crockett on TV was great, but I discovered that we had his real words in a book on our shelf.
The questions of history intrigued me: Why did that happen? Is there a theory to explain it? Could it have been different? When the Civil War Centennial was ushered in with an avalanche of new books, I was already deep into learning about Lincoln and the war. Bruce Catton was a favorite writer because he could make battles and leaders come alive, and often did postscripts on how a battle might have turned out different, “if only….” And, along with much of my generation, “if only” has haunted me since the day Oswald shot JFK…. (Yes, I’ve read Stephen King’s 11/22/63.)
My generation was captured by John Kennedy’s inspiring ideals and vision. He was the first president we claimed for our own: a certified hero, full of vigor and a youth frozen in time by that bullet in Dallas. His call became our vision, too: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do…”
My sense of history spurred me on to serious study and to learn the fundamentals of research and evaluating evidence. When I graduated high school in 1966, I wanted nothing more than to study history and become a great history teacher who could make it come alive and show how important it was. But, graduating when I did, I daily lived in expectation of a letter from my Uncle Sam. We’d already lost one young man from the class of ’65, and we knew others who were going.
I was puzzled by the war in Vietnam. Massive protests had not yet occurred, but I knew it was not my mom and dad’s war. I followed the body counts in the paper. I listened to LBJ talk about the “light at the end of the tunnel.” I set out to understand the U.S. involvement, even write a research paper.
I suppose that, because of my youthful ideals and inexperience, I wasn’t ready to accept that the government might lie to us. At the time, I was still dismissing rumors in the tabloids about JFK’s sexual exploits. The more I read about ‘Nam, the more contradictions I found—and few answers. The deaths of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy raised so many questions about America. Perhaps it was a relief that I finally got my draft notice in August of ‘68. I had a lot to learn….
Above: Snapshot of an American soldier on LZ Charlie Brown, where I spent my 21st birthday
I turned twenty-one on a firebase in Vietnam. When I came back in a hospital plane in mid-1969, I found myself sharing the disillusion and questions about who and what is America. The guys in my unit didn’t know much about the politics of the war; their purpose, and mine, was to get ourselves and our buddies home in one piece. I’m unquestioningly proud of my service and the men I fought alongside. I think, however, that one reason Vietnam became a national nightmare and haunts us still is the fact that my generation had grown up under the shadow of that greatest generation, and we wanted to save America just like they did … so I guess we failed.
After all, no one welcomed us home or said “thank you.” Instead, they were calling us “baby killers” before anyone even knew the name My Lai. My reverence for America had naturally developed from my regard for the generation that gave itself for such a great cause; I think we got America and the government confused—a government founded and led by so many great men. If our government let us down, then I guess America had, too.
My picture of America and its ideals got stuck in that Southeast Asian quagmire, got trampled on by the seething crowds in the streets and meaningless deaths in public places. We left Vietnam, but Vietnam never left us. We came home, though lots of us might legitimately still be considered POW or MIA.
My idealism had nearly got left in chunks on a dry rice paddy. Many of us wondered if God turned his back on America in the sixties. We seem to have lost our way and become very uncertain about who we were.
I’m thankful for the grounding in history that I had received—it helped me get back on my feet. I’ve recounted elsewhere how my appointment with a mortar round brought me to faith in Christ. I’d always considered myself a Christian growing up, but church didn’t seem so important—except as part of the treadmill I was on. Maybe Jesus was just a cosmic Santa that I was growing out of? I went back to school to study history and political science, but that wasn’t helping me sort out my questions. At some point, I was having conversations with a friend who had become a Christian; I realized that there was one thing I needed to figure out: Did Jesus really rise from the dead? If so, then it was all true, however much encrusted now with tradition.
I began using my training to explore and investigate. Was it history or myth? One day while browsing in a library, I discovered Luke, the Gospel writer. A book on archaeology had an intriguing chapter titled, “Luke the Historian.” An historian? My kind of guy! The writer addressed Luke’s methodology and historical references to people, places, and events. He hadn’t just written down myth and fantasy like so many did in ancient stories of gods and heroes. Luke operated like a true modern historian, interviewing eyewitnesses and gathering evidence, and putting it down in a coherent account. It was history that settled the question of the resurrection for me–and the resurrection became its central fact.
By the summer of 1971, I was a convinced believing Christian. But my image of America was not improving. It seemed to be going from bad to worse. The revelations of My Lai hit too close to home: I remember the moment I learned that the company involved there had been part of my own battalion, and I wondered what I would have done…. Then there was Kent State, young Americans killing young Americans. Watergate and the resignation were the final blow for me and my picture of America. Nixon lit a match to it and took off on a helicopter.
Above: Nixon in the door of Marine One. “I am not a crook.”
Section 3. The developing logs in the American eye
Michelle and I were in a unique position to see the problems that troubled our nation when we returned from West Africa in 1989. We had spent nearly two decades living in a kind of bubble that surrounded our missionary training and service; we were often oblivious to what was happening beneath the surface in the United States.
The return was a voyage through time to a different world: changes stood out starkly. In 1989, the culture wars had mushroomed; they were no longer an occasional fire fight. Evangelicals were now deeply involved in power politics. Many were crusading to restore a “Christian America”—their idea of what the Founders intended for this country. It sounded good, but I couldn’t ignore the red flags flapping in my face from the history that I knew.
Was a Christian nation what the Founders wanted? There was much to commend the position. True, many of our Founders were devoted Christians. True, they shared the Judeo-Christian values that formed the core of our legal and moral systems. True, they believed that Providence was active in human affairs. Even Jefferson and Ben Franklin shared the conviction that God was not some passive watchmaker in the sky. They weren’t like the French Deists.
Were those crusaders right? There’s no simple answer. It’s complicated by the fact that there has been and continues to be a “civil religion” in America. I won’t go into that much except to say that there is a quasi-religious faith in a nonsectarian “God” and his favor in blessing America as a shining light of freedom to the world. It is mostly communicated through symbol and ritual, such as the oft-heard “God bless America” at the end of a speech and in patriotic songs. Civil religion is also a historically common set of values that has fostered cohesiveness in our society. A one page summary can be found here.
One cannot dismiss the religious element from the Founders’ vision of freedom, unless we ignore history. But acknowledging this is far different from saying that they wanted to establish a Christian nation. They were all about freedom of thought, conscience, and religious belief (or not), and they did not fear its demonstration in the public square—i.e., in the open forum of public discourse and debate. There is a quote from one of Jefferson’s letters emblazoned on his memorial in D.C.: “I have sworn on the altar of god [sic], eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
I was quite taken aback by another stark reality in 1989: the amount of talk about rights as opposed to common responsibilities. Such talk was everywhere. When I began teaching junior highers in 1993, I heard the same thinking from them. Their knowledge of the Declaration was reducible to two things: we are all “created equal,” and, we have the right to “pursue happiness.” I didn’t dismiss the talk because these were kids. They simply reflected what was going on in the larger society. I heard it expressed still more insistently within the adult population: we should assert “my” rights—even if it showed little regard for others’ rights.
Was I hearing rightly? Two things kept jumping out at me: One, we were becoming a more “me”-centered society. Second, we were becoming an increasingly litigious (sue-happy) nation. Lawyer ads were everywhere. The number of lawyers was increasing proportionally across America (try Googling that). I remember puzzling, “Is this what Americans do?”
I was also shocked by the pervasiveness of partisanship. Partisanship has had a long—and in some ways proud—history, but now it was everywhere, even in church. Talk radio was almost exclusively political. I soon heard people talking about some guy on radio named “Rush.”
Different, as well, was something called “political correctness.” I was hearing about it more and more. At first, I thought it was a joke. But while in teacher training, I saw its impact in an ugly way: an almost silent code had developed over what was acceptable to say or think in classes. I wasn’t hearing classmates politely disagree or question things. Instead, I was hearing dogmatic statements about certain things being right or wrong; and, somehow, it was supposed to be obvious to the person saying the wrong thing. And, there were, sometimes, silent incredulous stares.
I had been in college and university before and after my time in the Army (1966-68 and 1970-72). Teachers and students at that time were forever provoking us with new thinking and points of view. We were often encouraged to express what we thought, to debate others’ views, to question the system. The Free Speech Movement was still new, having started at Berkeley in 1964.
Above: Mario Savio at Berkeley, 1964. Savio was a main leader in the Free Speech Movement.
I was greatly disturbed by the university environment of the early nineties and how political correctness appeared to put a damper on free expression. But I could also see good intentions behind it: to build and encourage tolerance and respect, especially in the diverse student milieu in which I was working. (Like I said, I’m an optimist.)
What I wasn’t seeing was also disturbing: I kept looking for that “shining city upon a hill.” Instead, I saw that Wall Street was now on Main Street. There were corporate takeovers, fortunes made and lost without regard to the damage done to working people. Everyone talked about it; many people I knew were investing. No one spoke yet about the 1 %, but there was a shift in where and how money was going.
Goals in education were changing, too. Parents were going crazy driving children hither and thither in a dither to ensure participation in the right activities so they could get accepted to the right schools. The right college was now considered an essential part of the résumé in order to get the right job. At the same time, the value of a college education was increasingly questioned, even though thousands paid to learn how to pass the SAT.
Meanwhile, my students lived in an economically depressed area where there was lots of gang activity. Many kids didn’t expect to live past 18, many expected to end up in prison—yet they were set on going to college: Wasn’t that the “American dream”? I felt a growing dis-ease, a sense that the American dream was no longer real, and the tools to achieve it weren’t being passed on to the generations behind us. I’d gone to junior high in 1961 with guys in a gang—but they saved their fights for after school and pulled C’s in English and Math just so they could be there to participate in sports and especially in the shop classes learning practical skills. I don’t remember ever hearing them say they were there “to be with their friends.” However, when I started teaching, money was not often available for shops, and when a shop teacher retired, they were never replaced.
Once I started teaching, I also noticed that students had little perspective on the history of America. This was not surprising. There was a growing national awareness that young people, even young adults, did not know history. Worse, they had little sense of our common heritage or what it meant to be an American. There was little talk about being a good citizen or civic duty. There was a lot about rights.
School districts couldn’t seem to help students understand the American heritage, yet they kept pushing stricter standards. There was fighting about what to include in textbooks, and it did seem that much legitimate contribution by minorities had been left out. But by emphasizing so much diversity, we seemed to be losing the idea that Americans pursued anything for the common good. School districts were spending massive amounts on expanding bureaucracies and services, on lawyers and lawsuits. The specter of their scrambling for protection from lawsuits left me wondering how serious we were about real education for all.
The increasing self-involvement among people was one of the most disheartening developments I noticed when we returned from Africa. At first, I simply dismissed it, but it was appearing everywhere: It showed up among people at work, among fellow students when I went back to school. The message from teachers in the education classes was often about building self-esteem. It was becoming institutionalized on sports teams and in the schools. Self-esteem was a pervasive concern. I’d always thought that building a healthy self-image would be the natural outcome of things like receiving genuine care and love from family and other important adults in one’s life; I’d always thought it essential to make sure young people were adequately equipped with the tools for normal accomplishment in life.
While we had been occupied outside the mainstream of American life, schools had bought into social promotion. Once it became established, it would be nearly impossible to return to any merit-based promotion. When I began teaching, I noticed how much teachers and others were telling students how special they were, that they must never stop pursuing their dreams. In the back of my mind I couldn’t stop wondering where that road would lead if they didn’t have basic skills? In sports, it was: “Everyone gets a trophy.” We told them they were “winners,” but we weren’t teaching them how to excel on their own as part of a team to achieve common goals.
It wasn’t just me seeing the growing self-centeredness. I was hearing folks joke when referring to coming generations, using variations on some theme of “me.” But the humor escaped me.
Above: David Brooks
I recently heard social commentator David Brooks speak about his book, The Road to Character, and his evaluation of younger generations as evidence of a “narcissism epidemic.” Another commentator, E.J. Dionne, wrote a book titled, Our Divided Political Heart: the Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent. He writes of the “communitarian” idea that had once formed the core of family and community life—and therefore, the core of our nation. The communitarian idea is like saying, “no man is an island,” that we must recognize our part in a bigger picture. We may at times feel like only a small part, but our part is nevertheless honorable, useful, and vital to the success of the whole. “Me” seems to have now become bigger than community.
Above: E.J. Dionne
American culture and history has always exalted what we call “rugged individualism.” That kind of individualism pushed west and conquered a continent. It was concerned with making its own way, carving out its own life, never feeling entitled to much except what it might secure with its own hands. That individualism epitomized the American dream: i.e., the freedom to build a better life for oneself and for one’s children. It was the kind of individualism that acknowledged the contributions of others in that common trek westward, and the necessity of interdependence in a common endeavor that could not be accomplished alone. That individualism was mindful of contributing to the common good, knowing it would benefit all—and each person within the larger group.
Rugged individualism set within community was a consciousness that typified the “American character,” particularly during the tough Depression years of the thirties, and again and again during the Second World War. It was demonstrated by the sacrifices of millions. The War was a team effort in a common cause for the survival of democracy and freedom.
I grew up hearing from the greatest generation the affirmation that each person had a God-given right to thrive within society, yet there was a consciousness of a commonly agreed-upon boundary: “my rights stop where your nose begins.” When we got immersed again within American culture, it struck me that noses didn’t seem to matter anymore (except mine, of course)….
One last thing stood out to me: I remembered that, perhaps until the early seventies, it had been considered a mark of good character if someone played an active role in the community or in a church. Now, such things didn’t seem to matter anymore. Values were changing, and it was no longer attributed to the rebellious sub-cultures of the sixties. Instead, there appeared to be a rapidly evolving new perspective on how to think about values and morals.
This new perspective, called “postmodernism,” was becoming widely accepted. Its tenets included the idea that truth is relative, that values are actually a human construct, that there is no inherent absolute moral value (such as in Judeo-Christian morality). Instead: “what you believe is right for you, but not for me.” Whether consciously or not, people were each becoming an autonomous authority, or arbiter, for what is right and wrong. Autonomous? What I thought I was seeing was a society adrift, much as my own directionless moral compass. We were alone together … trying to figure out life on our own….
Section 4. The Frog in the kettle
I wrote earlier of the good intentions I’d seen behind political correctness. But good intentions don’t necessarily yield good outcomes. Those who supported McCarthy in the 1950s also had good intentions: they sought to preserve democratic values, Americanism, and to weed out enemies. (There were exceptions to the good intentions, of course, including McCarthy himself.) The outcome of those well-meaning witch hunts fostered great fear across our land and was highly destructive of our free speech and association rights. Many lives were ruined.
How could that have happened in America? Pondering the McCarthy Era provided some clues as I thought about what I see happening now. People in the 1950s had plainly lost sight of the Founders’ idea. They lost sight of who we are. I believe that we have lost sight of it, again, ourselves. This didn’t happen overnight, it was gradual, a “while you were sleeping” kind of thing. I’m not sure when it was that we went to sleep. Perhaps the sixties put us into a national coma so that we weren’t aware of the changes that came more gradually later on….
The tweet that invited others to go with the teacher to burn someone’s business, for me, was a wake-up call. It wouldn’t have happened twenty years ago. Twenty years before that, it would not even have been imagined. How could that have happened in America?
You may know the story of the frog in the kettle. The frog was quite content in the water, even after the fire was lit beneath the kettle; he only knew that the water was getting more comfortable. The water grew hot so gradually that the frog never noticed. Then he went to sleep. Then it boiled. Then it was too late….
This story, as a parable, has many applications in our lives, for all of us, in private and public life, both on the left and the right. The story begs a number of questions: for example, when did it become acceptable to insist that tolerating others’ views was not enough, that we must all accept them as of equal validity with our own? At what point did it become acceptable to not only protest against but injure those who disagree with politically correct thinking? I don’t know at what point it became acceptable to subpoena a minister’s private emails because he opposed a local gay rights law. I don’t know when it became acceptable to destroy someone’s livelihood—or terrorize or threaten them—because their beliefs weren’t the same as others. When did it become acceptable to burn Jews?
The culture wars are not simple disagreements about political conviction or religious thinking. They reflect visceral reactions to perceived threats to deeply-held values. It’s one thing to hold deep convictions about abortion, for example; it’s another to intimidate, threaten, or murder those who practice it.
The same can be said for any number of beliefs and efforts to force our own opinions, values, and convictions upon others.
As a Christian believer, I’ve often heard Christians accused of being self-righteous hypocrites. The charge is, unfortunately, often true. Christians are not the only ones who can become self-righteous: the McCarthyites are simply one other example. Whenever a person is self-righteous in their own convictions and causes, that very certainty has become a log in the eye that blinds to reality. Those who are manifestly self-righteous are only the obvious ones. Less noticeable are we when we don’t separate our observation from our preconception. We are, then, the same as most people, who see only what we expect to see.
The frog was comfortable in his expectation that the warming water was getting wonderfully more comfortable. That comfort became death for the frog. Our comfortable blindness to reality—the result of expectations or self-righteousness—will gradually eliminate any sensitivity to the damage we might be doing to others—and finally, to ourselves.
That’s why the nationwide me-centeredness I spoke of earlier is so insidious. It is like the gradually heating water that lulls us to the sleep of death. (Self-righteousness is me-at-the-center on steroids, a place where my views are no longer quietly assumed to be correct but now insistent that the rest of the world think as I do.) As an American, we grow up acknowledging that “all are created equal” along with everyone else. But the moment we believe that the world should think as I do, we’ve made ourselves “more equal than others”; we have become pigs (the rulers) in Orwell’s Animal Farm community. We will loudly celebrate the 4th of July and proclaim the idea that different values and thinking have the right to co-exist … but, anyway, what did we think of that tweet? Just who put the match to the kettle? Another take on the frog story is that he lit it himself, knowing that warmer water would be more comfortable….
Agendas pushed in a manner that is destructive of other’s rights will, in the end, destroy all of our rights.
Our me-centered thinking has become acceptable to the extent that it is biting back in unexpected places. I’m reading Kirsten Powers’ excellent book, The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech. Powers is a political journalist and commentator, considers herself a person of the left (perhaps more of a “classic liberal”), a Democrat, and a Christian.
Above: Kirsten Powers
Her book depicts several areas that illustrate how the good intentions of well-meaning people can have catastrophic consequences. I’m not certain Powers would put it as I just did, but I’m drawing a parallel here with the actions of the people who sought to protect democratic values in the 1950s. The evil in what those people did was not apparent at first: they were interested only in protecting America and our way of life, right?
Kirsten Powers recounts how colleges and universities that were once a welcoming haven for introducing new and controversial ideas and protest are now becoming unsafe for independent thinking at all. It is now a place where different ideas and the people who speak them can be suppressed and even physically attacked. One young woman demonstrated against abortion on a campus and had her sign ripped away by a professor—who later hit the woman with her sign. I guess the Free Speech Movement is dead, after all.
Another area she writes about is “microaggression” in the university. This is a growing phenomenon. Students are becoming so self-protective that professors must warn them if they are going to talk about or assign reading topics or words that might trigger offense. Question: What do such people do when outside that protective classroom shell?
It is incredibly ironic that free speech, including freedom of thought, conscience, and belief or not, was long championed by thinkers on the left. There seems now to have been a polar change. Champions are appearing on the right. The question I have for those who agree with pushing political correctness: Has their way of thinking become more important than protecting constitutional rights?
Is there now to be no honest reasoned debate on such things? Do you remember what happened to Juan Williams? Williams is a liberal commentator who was dismissed from NPR because he expressed on air his discomfort when a Muslim man came onto his plane wearing traditional robes. He was not assuming the man to be a terrorist. He was simply expressing a very normal reaction: fear. As a person learning to find and unstuff my own feelings, I find this squelching of Williams despicable. Williams has also written a book, Muzzled: the Assault on Honest Debate. Can we now have honest debate? Or is that dead too?
Above: Juan Williams
I am frankly mystified by the changes happening on our campuses and on the left. In the end, such changes seem to be working toward “groupthink” instead of validating “freethink.” Groupthink was another feature of George Orwell’s world in the novel, 1984. Modern government was becoming an all-intrusive “Big Brother” in his story. Of course no freedom-loving liberal would accept that idea. But I wonder whether we could even have that discussion without it breaking into a fight. Are these liberals now in the kettle? If so, they’ve also lit the match.
The idea of dissent and debate is a cherished tradition in the American heritage. More recent biographies of thinkers who sought to protect freedom deserve some serious consideration. A bio of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, by Edmund S. Morgan, comes to mind. Many of our earliest settlements and even states were founded by people seeking to escape religious persecution. Now there is no other place to go. Now we are here, together, in one place. Now what do we do? The direction we’re going is to eclipse and remove debate from people’s thinking as a possibility. Open debate and compromise are vital and fundamental to democracy and who we are–otherwise, we are no longer a democracy.
Section 5. The normal logs we share
I’ve been detailing some problems that have become logs in the eye and cloud our view. (This is not to deny there are a lot of good things happening in America—but that’s for another time.) There is also such a thing as “normal” logs that can cloud our view.
The first “normal” log is this: we all think differently, even from birth. When our first-born arrived, both Michelle and I wondered about the “nature or nurture” question. Our second child left us no doubt about the answer. Almost immediately, we saw how different he was, in his actions, his personality. You can see they’re siblings by how they look, but that’s about it.
Another normal log gets added along the way. That add-on is our individual world view, the set of lenses through which we see life around us, developed through the personal and cultural influences we grow up with. It’s such a part of how we think that we may not even be aware of it. The view includes the assumptions, the expectations, the understandings through which we interpret life. (Our eyes are physical lenses. It’s the brain that actually sees and interprets what comes in.)
We also grow up with some specialized lenses, dependent on what areas we are deeply involved in throughout life. For instance, I generally see life through my Christian world view lens. I have others: a historian lens and an American citizen lens. As I write this, I’m trying to stay focused and see through these last two lenses.
History is full of examples of looking through a single lens and missing what’s really there. In 19th century Germany, people thought they could explain human behavior scientifically. Historians, men of great intellect, knowledge, and erudition, tried searching out some overarching theory to explain history scientifically. They found what they expected to find through a scientific lens. Undoing their error took decades. What they missed: history is made by flawed, fallible, complicated people whose behavior cannot be neatly predicted.
A second example is the Pharisees, who were a party of Jewish experts in Mosaic law. These were the ones Jesus kept having run-ins with. They saw most everything through one grid, the Mosaic law and their own expertise in how to keep that law. They had finely-developed rules for people to follow in order to “keep” the law. Jesus tried to show them that they were missing the heart of the law, i.e., that operating from a heart that loved God and others was the goal of the commands in the first place.
Another normal log is clutter: there is so much going on it’s hard to see our way clear to what’s important. Life is complicated. How can we simplify? The election campaign is a cloud-machine that is directed right into our faces. To clear the clouds of complexity and confusion, “Get back to basics,” may seem a trite proverb, but is a still useful remedy. The “basics”—in this case, the principles stated in the “idea of America”—are a place to start. You may be surprised how it helps to clear the clutter.
The character “Mitch” in Grisham’s, The Firm, is a brilliant, newly-minted young lawyer who finds himself working in a law firm run by criminals. He gets pressured by the FBI to testify, even though it would cost him his license. With his life, wife, and career on the line, he realizes that the situation has made him “really think about the law for the first time….” Hopefully, our look at the Declaration will help you “really think about” who we are as a people.
Another log: Trying to understand the meaning of an old text in its own setting. The Declaration of Independence (and the Constitution) may not seem like an ancient text because its words are so familiar. But that document is nearly 250 years old! The rest of the Founders’ world may look ancient to you—it certainly does to your children. It’s important to think about the original meaning because it will help shake it out of its “passing scenery” status. Getting even a small glimpse of its impact upon the people of that day will help us see why I said it was new, radical, and unique. It will also, as I mentioned earlier about the Civil War, help us avoid reading current understandings back into history so that we don’t miss important stuff.
Another normal log: When we Americans look at our revolution, we tend to see it through a cloud of inevitability—a play whose ending we know—as though its success had never been in doubt, a part of our “manifest destiny.” The Founders did believe that Providence (God) was directing the course of human affairs, and they certainly sought God’s guidance and blessing.
But don’t miss the fact that they did not see the success of the revolution as inevitable or destined in a particular way. To the Founders, the Declaration was like a word picture of their vision, a portrait worth every ounce of their blood. The revolution and the republic they hoped to establish was an experiment. Don’t forget that their first attempt at putting the principles into a form of government, the Articles of Confederation, didn’t work out very well. Being normal people, they must have wondered if they had failed after all?
Remember the very last line in our independence declaration (“we pledge our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor”). They were definitely “all in.” When they put their names beside that of John Hancock, they were literally putting their lives on the line. Ben Franklin, ever the warm and wise wit, pointedly reminded the signers of the need for total commitment: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” It was a reminder that would be much needed as the war dragged on and the outcome looked bleak. We need the same reminder. Franklin’s warning then may be prophetic, now.
As we look at their actual words, I wanted to lay out three practical questions to ask about the text: What does it say? What does it mean? What does it mean to me? The first question is about its normal meaning today, or however it strikes you—so you know what you’re thinking. The second may require more reflection or looking online or in a reference book to help you think about what it meant in 1776. The final question asks about your application of what it says in your everyday life, at home, in your community, at work, in relationships with people.
I wish here to quiet some of the noise surrounding our understanding of Thomas Jefferson, the man and principal author of the Declaration. In the past few years, our understanding of him may have become another log, and not exactly normal. This log highlights the problem of forcing a “correct” view of history, one that not only clouds but robs us of an important part of our heritage.
Jefferson had help and advice from his friends Ben Franklin and John Adams and two others. (We should have such friends!) But basically he is the sole author, who agonized over multiple hand-written drafts. The Declaration is one of three accomplishments he is most proud of in his entire life.
I’m speaking of the noise about his relationship with Sally Hemings. You may agree with those who, considering the fact that he had several children by a slave woman, have formulated a politically correct evaluation of him as a racist, a hypocrite, and worse. If your lens is focused on that when you read words like “equal,” it will be nearly impossible for you to understand how such words coming from a man like that would inspire all mankind. It may be that the people in his world didn’t know, or didn’t care. But the cat is out of the bag now, so you must find a way, if you are willing, to look and see the idea he wrote there.
There’s a lot riding on this. Even if Jefferson is a “racist” by modern standards, does it mean that equality in America is a sham? Is it then not worth fighting for what he wrote? And what do we not know about this man and this relationship?
Here are some thoughts I offer to help you look around that modern log in our historical view:
Thomas Jefferson was, after all, one of our greatest American thinkers—that’s not a question. John Kennedy—who himself had a keen sense of history and its importance—once commented at a dinner for Nobel Prize laureates, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Jefferson was also a fierce defender of the freedom of thought and speech. Earlier, I quote his statement expressing “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
Jefferson was, like every other Founding Father and occupant of the White House, an imperfect and flawed individual. Please keep in mind what I said about reading current understandings into history.
Such harsh judgements are often arrived at without taking into account a lot of real evidence. (Woodrow Wilson may be the latest victim of this.) Did you know, for example, that Sally Hemings, the female slave who bore him children, was in fact a cousin of Jefferson’s deceased wife, Martha—to whom he was loyal and faithful as long as she lived? Hemings was very light skinned and passed for white. She accompanied Jefferson and his daughter, even in Europe, dressed in the finery of the day. There is always more to the story. We don’t really know the rest of the story for, while it has been scrutinized by serious research, the exact nature of their relationship remains shrouded in mystery. We do not really know what he thought/she thought.
Above: Sally Hemings Thomas Jefferson
Did you also know that Jefferson tried to insert statements into the Declaration that would have led to eventual freedom for all slaves? Franklin and others who read his drafts knew that such sentiment would never fly with the southern delegates: the Declaration would not have passed, if you can imagine that….
If you take time to read the mostly overlooked charges against George III in the document, you’ll find Jefferson’s statement that “he has waged cruel war against human nature itself,” referring to the slave trade. Jefferson wanted to do away with slavery gradually. He believed that Blacks should be free, though he questioned whether Black and White could ever live together in harmony. Lincoln believed the same. Read, for example, Jon Meacham’s fine biography of Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power.
Section 6, Seeing the Idea of America the Founders presented to the world: new, radical, and unique
The America described in the Declaration of Independence is two things.
First, America is people. This may seem like a “well, duh!” statement. But it is much more important than you may imagine just now. I’ll come back to that.
Secondly, America is an idea. It is a vision or dream or hope of how Americans can live together as a free democratic republic. The idea would eventually become our identity, who we are, what we stand for, what we do. This idea did not pop into the heads of Jefferson and the Founders as a whole piece. It was something that formed gradually over the course of at least a century and a half (since Jamestown and Plymouth), perhaps even since Columbus.
Other republics established throughout history had been small and more naturally cohesive. You may have the impression that the colonies and the early republic were just a bunch of English white men. Look again. The Founders were aware—though they did not use the word—that they were planning a fully functioning pluralistic democratic republic scattered over a very large area.
If you don’t have a copy of it on hand, I invite you to read the Declaration here on another web page.
The idea of America is rooted in a mix of both Christian values and Enlightenment application of those values. This was the combination that made the idea of the American republic new, radical, and unique. The English colonies in America had thoroughly imbibed what is known as the Judeo-Christian heritage, the heritage that stands behind both our legal system and our system of moral values. Agree or not, this is the history. The Bible was one of the few books that most colonial and pioneer families had from the time of America’s earliest settlements, and it came to be America’s primer.
The radical and unique part was its view of man (America is people, remember), and its view of political sovereignty and power. The view of man reflected what was in the Scriptures; the view of power was developed by Enlightenment thinkers. The biblical idea was more concerned with who people are and how they lived, no matter what the political structure might be. The Enlightenment worked out the political structure part.
Close-up: Michaelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” (Man)
The Judeo-Christian heritage contained in the Scriptures says that “man” (both male and female) was created in the image of God. The biblical language referred to people as “sons of God” because they shared in his image, they were like him in some way—though the Bible didn’t specify exactly how. There are those today who consider the Bible’s view of woman as misogynistic, citing the obvious paternalism of the biblical cultures and the leadership role assigned to males. What is often overlooked is that, compared to cultures around them, the Jews—and especially Jesus and Christianity—elevated the position and status of women. (You may be scratching your head, here.)
Husbands, for example, were instructed to love their wives sacrificially, “as Christ loved the church,” by going to the cross. While husbands were assigned leadership in the home, what is often forgotten (especially by the men) is that they will be held accountable by God for how they perform that role. (That could get very uncomfortable.)
The Enlightenment thinkers and writers articulated and clarified this high view of mankind, applying it to political life. (God gave rulership and stewardship of the earth to mankind, according to Genesis.) Jefferson stated clearly in the Declaration the conviction that equality (and the rights and freedoms that accompany equality) came directly from the hand of the Creator, a view not shared in most of the world of the time. This was radical thinking because it went against a background of history and tradition in Europe that rights were extended to men (never mind the women) by an intermediary—the King.
The Enlightenment writers developed and extended this view of man to say that power and authority to govern (i.e., sovereignty) resided in the people themselves. It was therefore the right and responsibility of the people to establish their own government, which would “secure” the rights. Any exercise of authority by the government was understood to be done in the people’s behalf and by their consent only.
Now to the text itself. I hope to do the Founders justice, and shed light on their understanding. I hope to see what is, not clouded or blinded by our me-centered 21st century filter.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident”: The Founders expected that what they wrote here would be evident to any who would give them honest consideration. A reasonable person would agree that they were true without requiring external proof. Reason was an important tenet of Enlightenment thinking. The ability of human reasoning and logic has its limitations and flaws—a view shared by the Bible—but what the Founders were appealing to in the Declaration might be thought of as “considered common sense.”
“that all men are created equal”: Equality is the first value mentioned, the root thought. The word “men” is not here restricted to males—though we know that many/most assumed it so, especially in that age. That all people are created in the image of God was basic to equality. The Bible does not state in so many words that “all are created equal,” but it is evident throughout the Scriptures that God operates on that basis. While people differ in gifts and abilities, positions and roles, no one is considered better than others. And they will be judged equally: “a person reaps what they sow.”
It was certainly true that most people in the new United States did not treat all as equals, but the principle was written here for us all to read, ponder and, hopefully see—by Thomas Jefferson.
The term here focused on political equality within a political context. “Equal” did not mean “same” to the Founders. People differ in intellect, ability, gifts, money, etc. Political equality was an inherent right, guaranteed so that people could improve themselves and the lives of their family, limited only by their abilities, gifts, and drives. This thinking is part of the genesis of the “American dream.”
Political equality means that no one person can claim rulership over us (even the King) without our consent. Each person is equally free and independent by natural right at birth.
“and that they are endowed by the Creator”: That life had been bestowed by God as Creator was an almost universal conviction back then. It remains nearly so today. References to God as Creator do not necessarily reflect devotion to the Christian God nor are they simply an acknowledgement of “something out there,” some higher power. Jefferson himself did not feel quite certain that he understood God, but did honestly believe that God was Creator and active in the world as Providence.
Jefferson did believe in a “wall of separation” between church and state, but not in the way that some would have us think. The Founders had experienced what it meant to live under a state-established church, and were determined to never allow that, even though many sects (denominations) sought to gain official sanction. Establishment usually came in the form of taxation to support particular denominations (such as paying the minister’s salary, upkeep of the church building, much as was done for local schools).
Jefferson was determined to guard and keep freedom of conscience, thought, speech, and religion—anything that might “exercise tyranny over the mind of man.” There was certainly no contradiction between expressing religious or non-conformist thinking in the public square. This was not the issue in Jefferson’s “wall of separation.”
I earlier mentioned “civil religion.” That it was part of American thinking from the time of the founding is evident, though it is not easy to evaluate its importance with any assurance. Distinguishing genuine devotion to God on the part of some and superstition on the part of others and the practice of a civil religion on the part of still others remains difficult. Jon Meacham has written an intriguing book, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation. Meacham says that religion shapes our public life without controlling it.
Above: Jon Meacham
“with certain unalienable rights”: Such rights could never be taken away by people or civil law. They were given by God the Creator to all human beings. By definition, even a person could not surrender these rights; they were unalienable. While a person may surrender their rights temporarily, such as in indentured servitude, no one was entitled to deprive their own posterity of these unalienable rights.
“that among these”: This is not an all-inclusive list: the three given are examples. There were other commonly acknowledged natural rights, such as conscience and property, later specified in the Constitution.
“are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”: Each of the three are worthy of several volumes. Note that “liberty” includes the idea of being free from imprisonment except for legal cause.
“Happiness” was never understood in any selfish or hedonistic sense in 1776. An Irish philosopher, who influenced the Founders’ thinking, explained it by tying together civic responsibility and happiness. Justice Anthony Kennedy said that, for the framers, “happiness meant that feeling of self-worth and dignity you acquire by contributing to your community and to its civic life.” We used to refer to this idea when speaking of our “civic duty.”
The freedom and right to pursue happiness was not conceived of apart from living within a community of others. While philosophers and political thinkers differed on what exactly constituted “happiness,” (even in 1776), it was never about a pursuit of one’s own goals considered apart from the well-being of others.
“that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men”: Securing natural rights was the primary purpose for government. Government’s job is to guard the rights, to keep them protected so that the people may thrive as individuals within the national community. Government did not grant the rights—they were given by God.
Apart from having government, people live in the state of nature—where the strongest rule. When we place ourselves under a government, we are giving up some rights (e.g., to keep all our money)—but not those that are unalienable.
“deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”: Note that the government, however big or small, gets permission (consent) from the people to exercise authority. Since power and sovereignty reside within the people, the people are not actually separate from their government. In a sense, we are the government. When I mentioned earlier that I (and my generation) had confused America and its government, I was reflecting a reality that should never have changed. It had changed forever after the 1960s. The two are no longer seen as synonymous.
Note also that only just power derived from the people is legitimate power. The people cannot give authority to the government that is not theirs to give: e.g., to rape, pillage, murder, fraudulently take property/things from the people, etc. Those in government cannot actually invent or take power, which would be illegitimate.
“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”: The Founders were concerned here with the absolute right of the people to change that form, not simply replacing people by election. This happened, for example, in adopting the Constitution—which replaced the Articles of Confederation.
Some provisions are made for changing government in the Constitution, but remember that the Declaration was written to justify our Revolution, to “declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” There is therefore a right to revolution when government is no longer protecting unalienable rights. You may rightly think of the Declaration mostly as a document setting forth what America stands for—which is what it stands for today. The position into which England had placed the Colonies forced the Founders into setting forth a “red line.” The King (listed in the specifics) had usurped consent and was no longer protecting the people’s rights—i.e., he had crossed our red line.
Section 7, Conclusion: This is What Americans Do (some ideas on making it real)
The problems and division that overwhelm America today are in large part due to the fact that we are losing—or have lost—sight of who we are. My purpose in reminding us of the vision our Founders had, the one they set forth in our Declaration of Independence, was so that we might more clearly see where we are at as a nation and how to get back to where our nation works again as it was designed to do.
There was a time, not that long before the American Revolution began, when the colonists considered themselves—and wanted to remain—Englishmen. It took about a decade from them to realize that not everyone else saw them that way; it took them that time to determine that they had fundamental natural rights that needed to be insisted upon and nothing less than a complete break and forming their own government would secure those rights.
One can sense that a number of Americans are longing for a reassertion of who we are. And we sense that our country is drifting—or maybe spinning around—without any real direction. We want to latch on to someone who can make America “great” again, or “whole”: but if we don’t know who we are, we won’t ever recognize what is needed to be great or whole. That is why these principles are important.
George Washington’s voice was prophetic. His “Farewell Address” warned us that division was the greatest threat to the survival of the American republic. Division is all about self-interest as opposed to the common interest. Our me-centered society should not be seen as a joke but as our undoing. Franklin’s comment about “hanging together or separately” was also prophetic. If we want America to “work” again, to be “great,” we must do it together as a community; otherwise we will remain two (or more) warring camps, waiting for Lincoln’s words to become true again: “a house divided cannot stand.” We cannot live together as one nation and be so divided at the same time and survive.
My explanation of what the Founders intended is flawed. I will continue to study them. Those people left us a republic to preserve, a valuable treasure to steward, which we will lose by not living according to our identity. The parable of the frog in the kettle applies to us all.
I leave you with a quote I once heard in a movie when I was a kid. I was impressed with the statement, I suppose, because it was so counterintuitive to the way we normally think: “Mister, I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
This quote (attributed to Voltaire) encapsulates an important aspect of what we Americans having always been about—perhaps until now. It recognizes the equality of all and their political right as equals to be who they are according to the dictates of their conscience. We disrespect their noses at our peril.
The Founders may not have used the word “pluralistic” in their original vision of America, but the vision they set forth was precisely that: we are a pluralistic nation which somehow must find a way to live together in safety in spite of our wide divergence of opinions and convictions. Each person, no matter what place they occupy on the political or religious or other spectrum, are entitled to their views and noses.
Since I am a follower of Jesus, I may not agree with certain things that go on in our society. As a citizen, I am entitled to my views and rights, and, in addition, I have a responsibility to recognize that others have the same freedom. As for me, the nature of being a disciple or apprentice of Jesus is that I live my life out among others as salt and light so that the others would see him reflected in my life. I’m still learning how to do that.
I also leave you with a suggested practical small step to begin the process of restoring some sanity and bring some respect and compromise among the warring factions fighting across America. I can’t wave a magic wand to change America back to what I or the Founders think it should be. All I can do as an individual American is to do my part, keeping in mind the well-being of us all.
When I was teaching full time, I was working with others who were mostly not Christians. We got to know and respect one another and I learned to understand others’ points-of-view. We saw one another as equals, each as important as the other, even though we had strong disagreements on issues. We were conscious that we were in this together. We respected one another’s noses.
Kirsten Powers, whom I mentioned earlier, apparently had a similar experience when she began to work as a Fox News contributor. She found it tempting to dismiss the people there and their views. But she got to know them over time—and realized they were intelligent, reasonable people, worthy of the same respect as anyone else, even when she strongly disagreed with them. Her recommendation to help us get the log out of our eyes and see solutions to our divisions is that we each expand our sphere of friends to include people with whom we disagree. I agree: there’s no better place than in our own neighborhoods and workplaces.
There are a few within the halls of Congress who “reach across the aisle” to find common ground. It actually works, even if not consistently. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” is a still-valid proverb.
This I believe is what the Founders had in mind. Remember when there were people in our land that we referred to as “statesmen”? These were people who were convinced of the idea of America, that it identified who we are, and they acted accordingly. We once had a tradition that such people were appointed to positions by the president so that he might benefit by their wisdom and expertise in seeking and pursuing an agenda best for the common good. We need such leadership now.
I am greatly indebted to the writings of Gordon Wood, the dean of historians of the American Revolution. Among his many great books are The Radicalism of the American Revolution, and The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States. You can see some of his works at Amazon.