Culture & Society

On Equal Dignity: Calling Americans Back to Our Sacred Ground

At the edge of a cliff. Americans must walk back to the sacred ground that is fundamental to who we are and reclaim equal dignity. Image Credit: urbancow/Getty Images

Across America, despite vast differences in political affiliations and viewpoints, religions and worldviews, many of us share a profound sense that we are perched on a precipice—and that if we step beyond it, we will lose our country. That is why many “we the people” in our divided United States are looking for ways to come together. Some believe that “coming to the middle” is the answer—moving away from the extremes of the far right and left.

But what if we look instead to something that needs no compromise in the middle—only commitment, or perhaps recommitment, to our deep roots in the foundation or ground of what fundamentally makes America America? If we were to do that, all across our different political, cultural, religious and ideological views, we would find that we already have those deep roots in a common ground. And we even hold that ground to be sacred—deep, meaningful and fundamental to who we are.

We can begin by looking to the Declaration of Independence’s statement of principled ideals—the ideals that have been the touchstone of our democratic republic, serving as our national mission since the founding. But as we all well know, the founders of the nation did not live up to those ideals. Yet condemnation today of the slaveholding signers of the Declaration and others who failed to live up to the Declaration’s promise, actually shows our support for the Declaration’s ideals. That is, we think our forebears should have adhered to them and that the nation should now. We still hold those “truths to be self-evident.”

We Are All Created Equal

Notice that the Declaration does not identify equality as a right. Rather, it is more than that: a statement of fact. The Declaration states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” The “unalienable rights” to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness follow from that. In fact, Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration clearly states that equal creation is the basis for those articulated inalienable rights: “from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable.” Rights can be infringed, even the right to equal protection under the laws—but equal creation itself cannot. It is who we are as human beings—as created.

That we ever came to the virtually complete consensus that everyone is created equal is no less than the triumph of the human spirit when set free.

There is considerable debate about whether the reference to “men” in the Declaration was originally intended to include all people. However, we know that at least for some in the founding era “all men” included everyone. This was especially so for Jefferson, who believed the views he expressed in his original draft of the Declaration were widely held. Jefferson concluded in his “Notes on the State of Virginia” that women’s inequality was not by nature, but due to cultural impediments: “It is civilization alone which replaces women in the enjoyment of their natural equality.” And he referred to the natural “liberties” as “the gift of God,” violations of which because of slavery invite God’s “wrath.”

Some of Jefferson’s contemporaries, including slaveholding and patriarchal signatories to the Declaration, certainly had different ways of interpreting the significance of “all men are created equal.” But what matters for us today is that now almost no one claims that it should not apply to everyone. That we ever came to the virtually complete consensus that everyone is created equal is no less than the triumph of the human spirit when set free.

The Declaration Repudiated Hierarchical Dignity

At the time of its adoption, the Declaration’s stated endorsement of equal creation was a major departure from the dominant view everywhere that there is a hierarchy of human worth or dignity. One’s “dignity” was one’s place in that hierarchy, with some dignities being more worthy than others. That view supported the notion that some are slated to rule, and the rest are to be subjected to that authority—each in their supposed rightful places.

Hierarchical dignity has very deep historical roots in America. The whole premise and justification for the colonial enterprise in North America (and elsewhere) was based on the idea that some people have more dignity than others. From the start, an ideology of domination of one people over another was central to the Doctrine of Discovery. That doctrine, with its biblical foundation on which public decrees—papal bulls and English colonial charters—were promulgated, was incorporated into Europeans’ beliefs about their rightful sovereignty over others. As Native American activist Steven T. Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) has written, “[T]he colonizing voyagers assumed—even before they set sail, even as they imagined the journey, even before they could be sure these shores existed, even before the colonizers came ashore—that they already possessed divine and royal authorization and therefore the right to subject the inhabitants of our part of the planet (Great Turtle Island) to the ideas, standards, and judgments of Christian political power to be foisted on the lands and peoples existing in distant places.”

But domination ideology did not stop at one people’s power and authority over another; it was also reflected in the social structure. In the West, hierarchical dignity had roots in Aristotle.  Slavery was justified in Aristotle’s view because he believed that some people are naturally subordinate to others. Also, European societies originally were based on a hierarchy of authority from God to the sovereign elite (whether of church or state) and all the way down to the lowly at the bottom. Hierarchical dignity was expressed tangibly among the colonies’ forbears in Britain’s aristocratic system, as well as in the theology and governing structures in the colonies.

Calvinist reformed Christian sects espoused the doctrine of a divided people. They believed in the inherent sinfulness of all humankind but the predestined grace of God for the “elect” worthy, who would be saved for heaven, while the destiny of the rest was hellfire damnation. And for those deemed worthy, the outward sign of that worthiness was often monetary success. Even some Christian theologies that claimed the equal worth of everyone in the image of God incorporated theological interpretations that supported hierarchical subordination. Some interpretations of 1 Corinthians 12 took the view that while everyone is equally valued and included in the body of Christ, they nevertheless have different roles in society—and some of those roles are for the weaker or appropriately subordinated, which are their rightful places where they ought to remain.

On the contrary, many natural law philosophers and theologians who were influential in the American founding era had a different view: equal dignity. Through pamphlets, Christian sermons and books for public consumption, that view began to permeate pre-founding era thought and belief in the colonies among not only the elite but also among the rank and file of society. People began to question the dominant hierarchical dignity view: Is human nature really so corrupt that it needs to be controlled by worthies at the top? Is there a “natural” hierarchy of human beings who are appropriately designated only to particular roles in society with no hope or right to make of themselves something more?

A Shift in the “American Mind,” but Persistence of Hierarchical Dignity

Such questionings contributed to a shift in the “American mind,” as Jefferson referred to what was captured in the words of the Declaration. That “mind” embraced the natural theology of equal creation and the inalienable rights that flow from it. The nascent cultural shift had tilled the colonial ideological soil to such a degree that most of the population was ready to embrace a different way of thinking about authority in society—a different way of conceiving of who is sovereign—just as the colonists were prepared to separate from Britain and form a new nation, even if some were not yet willing to embrace all of what equal dignity implied. So it was that the language of the Declaration of Independence rejected hierarchical dignity when it proclaimed for equal creation and consequently inherent equal dignity: No one is more worthy than any other.

Yet, as we all know, the Declaration’s spoken ideals were unrealized from the start. That is no surprise because servitude was everywhere the norm with the various social strata ascending from there to the heights of hierarchical authority and privilege. That so many ever came to understand slavery as immoral, considering its long tradition and custom throughout the world, was an astonishing achievement. Nevertheless, the concept and practice of hierarchical dignity ideology remained salient as a countervailing trend to equal dignity in American culture and law before and during the founding. Once Jefferson’s original draft criticism of slavery as “piratical warfare” against the “most sacred rights of life & liberty” of the enslaved people was omitted in the final version, the Declaration was palatable enough for slaveholders to sign it, even though it announced that all men are created equal. They could interpret that statement more narrowly than its wording implied.

That so many ever came to understand slavery as immoral, considering its long tradition and custom throughout the world, was an astonishing achievement.

Hierarchical dignity even found its way into the originally adopted Constitution when it embraced some founding ideals while permitting slavery to continue. Hierarchical dignity was also incorporated into 19th-century jurisprudential and cultural assumptions about women, minorities, the family and who is entitled to participate as “we the people” in the political process, among many other things. A graphic example is the 1830s removal of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands in the southeastern United States to west of the Mississippi River in the “Trail of Tears,” a journey that resulted in an estimated 15,000 Native American deaths.

Equal Dignity Gains the Stronger Foothold

It was not until abolitionists began to have significant impact before, during and after the Civil War that the idea of equal dignity gained the stronger foothold. Christians who favored equal dignity came again to the fore to counter other Christians who fought to preserve hierarchical dignity in the institution of slavery, both citing biblical passages for their incompatible views.  Equal dignity prevailed in the spirit of the ideals of the Declaration. Referring to them as “great principles of political freedom and of natural justice,” Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist orator and former slave, embraced Declaration ideals in his famous 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” while criticizing the unequal application of those ideals to people under the yoke of slavery and calling slavery “the great sin and shame of America.” In his 1863 Gettysburg Address—delivered in the midst of the Civil War—Abraham Lincoln invoked the Declaration when he spoke of our nation as “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

In the years following the Civil War, the civil rights amendments, especially the Fourteenth Amendment, codified equal dignity in the Constitution itself—not equal creation, of course, because equal creation always was the fact underlying the Declaration, but rather by means of the equal protection under the law. Finally equal dignity had been grafted onto the Constitution to counter laws that had supported hierarchical dignity.

Those amendments, referred to as the “second founding,” began a long journey through the 20th century with equal dignity gaining ground. Advancements were hard won through social movements founded in equal dignity, such as the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement and the American Indian “Red Power” movement. Those movements led to, among other things, adoption of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which secured women’s right to vote; the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited segregation and discrimination; the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act of 1978, which recognized Native Americans’ right to practice their religion; and Native culture-crushing boarding schools finally closing (the last of which shut its doors in 1990).

Our Mission Today

We have by no means reached the end of history when it comes to equal dignity. Efforts to uphold equal dignity have continued all the way through to today where we still struggle to define, describe and delineate for law and culture what the fact of equal creation’s equal dignity calls us to do and be as a nation. We have considerable work to do not only because of the legacy of slavery—which remains in cultural and institutional assumptions—and the ongoing subjugation of Native Americans, but also because of the general failure to fully recognize the equal dignity of everyone.

Remnants of hierarchical dignity continue to trouble our politics, law, policy and culture today. It is found whenever conflict devolves into denigration of the “other” as unworthy; it is found in actions and policies that stifle the voices of some to promote a favored perspective; it is found where law, policy, governmental agency and organizational prescriptions put up barriers to the full participation of everyone; it is found when elites assume they know better rather than listen to those who are closer to what is happening on the ground; it is found whenever there is competition for resources or for the exercise of rights or privileges where the aim is for the winner to take all. In all these ways, the lure of hierarchical dignity threatens to tempt liberty to devolve into the will to power and control over others—whether from left or right because the home of hierarchical dignity and its domination agenda is not any political party. It is found across the political and ideological spectrum.

Equal dignity is found when we embrace the human spirit and recognize our common humanity.

Yet history has shown that our stronger impulse is and always has been equal dignity. Since America’s founding, the Declaration’s ideals have prevailed as our touchstone: Every person, created equal, has an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Equal dignity is rooted in who we are as equally created human beings. It is self-evident as it manifests in our deep sense of the need for fairness. It is found today when people set aside self-interest for the good of others. It is found when we embrace the human spirit and recognize our common humanity. It is revealed in our unfolding history with its greater and greater recognition of equal dignity in law, policy and culture over nearly two and a half centuries since the Declaration was adopted by the Continental Congress. Today we don’t disagree about equal dignity. Rather, for the vast majority of us, our disagreements are really about how best to honor it. The question for our time, then, comes down to this: How do we embrace equal dignity while ensuring maximum liberty for the pursuit of happiness?

The answer to that question is not likely to be found by focusing on the moderation of extremes. Instead, let’s plant our feet firmly on our sacred ground. We may disagree about what laws and policies stand best on that ground. But in those disagreements, we ought not undermine the ground itself—because that ground is what makes all of our arguments and debates possible in the first place.

Our mission today is what it was meant to be from the start: to strive to transform all of the Declaration’s unrealized ideals into realized self-evident truths. To continue that effort, let’s not just stand staring over the precipice; let’s walk back to our sacred ground. The first step is to reclaim, and to proclaim whenever and wherever we can, equal dignity.


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