Monday, December 12, 2005

"All Men are Created Equal"

The Declaration of Independence states, '…all men are created equal…' The founding fathers said that we were created equal because they believed in a creator. This means that they believed that those who believed in a creator have a natural right to rule those who do not, and all others have a natural duty to obey.

This is, in essence, the political philosophy of the religious right. It is an absurdity that contradicts itself almost immediately. Whereas the Declaration of Independence is founded on the principle of political equality, the religious right wants to interpret it as a document that recognizes their divine right to rule over all others.

The Function Of "All Men Are Created Equal"

The function of the phrase "all men are created equal" is to serve as a premise in an overall argument. That argument's purpose was to prove to a candid world that the United States had a right to break its political chains with Great Britain and to establish an new nation. In order to prove that they had this right, they had to counter any argument that said that they owed their allegiance to England.

The doctrine that they most needed to challenge was one that said that governments get their authority from God. On this theory, the citizen's duty to yield to the authority of the king was the same as his duty to yield to the authority of God -- because the King was said to be somebody that God had picked to rule over man on Earth.

It was a very convenient doctrine for the monarchies of the Middle Ages to foster and promote, because it kept the peasants in line. Questioning the King was no different than questioning the Bible, which no citizen would dare do, allowing the King to exercise absolute authority over his subjects.

This was a part of a tradition that held that the Bible was literally true, and measured all evidence according to how well it conformed to scripture. If a collection of observations appeared to support a conclusion that the Bible (according to the Church) said was not true, then these 'observations' were dismissed as the work of the devil trying to deceive us away from truth. People were told that they had to be constantly vigilant against heresy and lies that Satan weaved to distract people from God.

Any individual who did not dismiss these observations that challenged Church doctrine, and continued to defend their theories, was branded an enemy of God and of all good men. This is why "Giordano Bruno" was burned at the stake, and why Galileo was told that he would endure the torture of inquisition unless he recanted his "proof" that scripture (as the Church interpreted it) was mistaken about the earth being the center of all things.

Rejecting Church Authority

Yet, even Bruno and Galileo were working on a tradition that Martin Luther had started. Martin Luther challenged the idea that the Church had a monopoly on truth, asserting that he could interpret the Bible better than anybody in Rome, thereby calling into question the idea that we must trust to Rome to deliver the truth. The Church doctrine was that all truth was contained within scripture, and that they knew the one true interpretation of scripture -- an interpretation that they received through communication with God. Luther dared to say that their interpretation was flawed.

The Church tried to preserve its authority by insisting that "truth" could only be found in its declarations of right and wrong, that "wisdom" meant recognizing the authority of the church and the dictates of its leaders, and that all people of good moral character recognized their own weaknesses and the need to submit to the higher authority of the Church.

However, Luther did not recant his statements, and he inspired others to get into the habit of questioning the Church. Countless new interpretations sprang up as each person put their own mind to the task of trying to discover what the Bible really said. They started to look elsewhere for evidence that they could apply to determine which answers were right or wrong.

The Age of Reason

Bruno and Galileo were working within a new tradition that said that humans could look at nature, make empirical observations, and from these deduce natural laws. They shocked the world with the things that they were able to discover -- truths that were hidden, but were available to those who looked.

Isaac Newton used this method and identified laws of nature that were simply too obvious to ignore. They contradicted the Church’s stand that the Earth was the center of the solar system – the claim that got Bruno executed. However, by this time, people were in the habit of thinking that where empirical research contradicted Church doctrine, this only meant that the Church had to update its doctrine.

What the "natural philosophers" were doing with the physical law, others thought they could do with moral law. They thought that they could look at man in a state of nature and determine natural moral laws that did not require referencing religious texts. As with the physical laws, if these natural moral laws contradicted accepted biblical interpretations, then the Church needed to correct those interpretations as well.

John Locke

One of the most significant efforts in this quest for moral knowledge was John Locke's "Second Treatise on Civil Government." In this essay, Locke looked at man in a state of nature and found it to be a state of perfect political equality. There was no natural right to rule, and no natural duty to obey. Kings did not get their power and authority from God. Rather, men, in a state of nature, in order to better secure their life, liberty, and property, invented a tool called the State as they would invent a hammer or a saw, and designed this tool to better secure these rights.

Because men had the authority to create a government, they also had the authority to bring it down. If that government became dangerous – if it threatened the rights that all men have by nature – then men are within their natural rights to throw this defective tool away and replace it with a new and better tool.

Locke still believed in God. He still believed that human beings were created. He believed that God created a universe that was governed not only by natural physical laws, but natural moral laws. He believed that, just as natural physical law can be determined philosophically without referring to any Bible or religious text, that people could look at man in a state of nature and discover moral laws independent of what could be found in scripture – truths that could then be used to understand scripture.

The Declaration of Indepedence

Thus, it was written into the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — 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.

When this was written, it still contained a couple of mistakes, some of which took more than a hundred years to work out. The founding fathers did not yet apply this principle to people in Africa. Nor did they hold that these principles applied to women.

It took this country another four score and nine years to realize that men in a state of nature would not accept slavery – that this clearly violated the idea of political equality. It took over a century to realize that the same arguments that showed that no man had a natural right to rule over another man also showed that man did not have a natural right to rule over women, thus they gave women the political right to vote (recognizing a moral right that had always existed).

However, it took only a decade for the founding fathers to realize that men in a state of nature would not have approved of a theocracy. Thus, when they wrote the Constitution ten years later, they wrote a document that did not mention God except to say that no religious test will be required of anybody seeking public office. This said, in effect, that people of different religions came to the State as political equals. There was no natural right that gave one religion a right to rule, nor was there a natural duty on the part of those of any other religion to obey.

There is an easily applied rule of thumb to use in determining if a law is consistent with this view of government. Ask yourself if two equals, meeting in a state of nature, would agree to those terms. If a group of Muslims met an equal group of Christians in the state of nature and agreed on a government, they would clearly not agree to a Christian government, nor would they agree to a Muslim government. They would not agree even to a majority rule (out of fear that they would find themselves in the minority). The only government they would reasonably agree to is one that managed the peaceful interactions between the two groups while showing favoritism towards neither.

The only sensible rule would be one like, "I may not prohibit you from building any temple that you want on your own land, and you may not force me to pay for it, and neither of us will claim dominion over the neutral territory between us -- the common meeting ground -- that is the state. We declare that the state is neutral territory. As such, you may not hoist your religious symbols there as if to claim it as your own, and neither shall we."

So, now, what can we say of those who look at the Declaration of Independence, see the phrase, “All men are created equal,” and argue from this that Christians (and, certainly, they mean their own brand of Christianity) have a natural right to rule and everybody else has a natural right to obey?

We can say that they are tearing the heart out of the principles upon which this country was founded and stomping it underfoot. They are saying, in effect, "We reject the philosophy that was laid down in the Declaration in Independence, and demand that the United States adopt a moral and political philosophy explicitly rejected in its founding document. We reject the idea that we are to think of ourselves as political equals to all others and demand instead a right to rule."

The Declaration of Independence does not say, “Only those who believe in a creator are equal, and all others are their political inferiors.” It says, “All men . . .”, a phrase that we now know should have said “All people . . .”.

What part of “all” do you not understand?


Anonymous said...

Wonderful! A bite-sized history of Western civilization as it applies to modern American principles. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Only I've never heard anyone from the religious right (or anyone else for that matter, besides you) say that they believe that they have a right to rule over everyone else because they believe in a Creator and other people don't. That's a preposterous interpretation of the Declaration of Independence on your part.

Anonymous said...

Agree with Mark, never heard anyone say that before. Seems a bit "Look at me I'm a victim"
All men are created equal by creator whether or not you believe in a creator. You still are "created" I mean you don't just poof out. You have to be mixed in semen and egg, cook for about 9 months and then "poof" its still a creation. I don't think anyone can argue that. (that comes from a Christian) God Bless

Calvin said...

Wow, Alonzo. I never thought too highly of this blog, but I didn't realize you were THIS much of a lying whack-job.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


In one of my posts I wrote about the moral standards applicable to the claim that somebody is a liar.

Perhaps it would be useful for you to read that post and see if you can write something that conforms to those standards.

Liars and Bigots

Calvin said...

"This is, in essence, the political philosophy of the religious right. It is an absurdity that contradicts itself almost immediately. Whereas the Declaration of Independence is founded on the principle of political equality, the religious right wants to interpret it as a document that recognizes their divine right to rule over all others."

This is why I call you a liar, Alonzo, why I consider you a cheap demagogue.

If you want to berate an individual, or particular group of individuals, who actually believe this (if you can find any), that's one thing.

But this is NOT what the overwhelming majority of religious conservatives believe. And I think you know it.

Anonymous said...

Calvin - do you deny that the religious right is trying to use the power and resources of the State to force their view of god on everyone?

Calvin said...


Of course I deny it. It's a preposterous claim made by lunatics and demagogues who need to spend a little less time in the sun, or something. Seriously, you guys remind me of nothing so much as the old charicature of the Red-Scare reactionaries who see a pinko around every corner. Grow up.

Elle Mac said...

I agree with Mark and as well. I don't know any of you, but I came across this blog while searching for what the principle of "all men created equally" might be called.

While I didn't read the whole thing I must say I don't think the writers of that document had your interpretation in mind at all!

Not a religious person either, just try to look at things honestly. Either way, anyone know what that principle might be called?!

Anonymous said...

i agree with no one but on what you konw and belive in that's all.

Johnny said...

Obviously you have been hurt by someone who was "religious" or considered "christian". this has absolutely NOTHING to do with tyrannical rule over those who did not believe in God. What a twisted distortion of our forefathers words.

Kristopher said...

nobody on the christian right says
"i have a right to rule becuase i believe in god and others have a right to obey" explicilty but when they try to use the law to prevent a mosque from being built (new york and tenesee) or when they demand that no political figure hire a mulsim person as part of their staff (herman cain & fox news) or when the try to protect the "sanctity" of marriage they say so implicitly. when the religous right says we should be a christian nation, for any reason, they state implicitly that they should rule and otherse should obey.

Anonymous said...

We should all agree that there are millions of human beings who have nothing.
And there are also millions who have everything.
We are not all equal, nor were we created equal.
There is one Almighty Benevolent Creator - who has no bearing or influence on our lives!

Anonymous said...

Divine right to rule over non-believers? Kings may have believed they were divinely appointed at one time above everyone. However, all men are equal: Romans 3:23 For ALL have sinned and come short of the glory of God.
Black, white, straight, gay, you, me- doesn't matter. Read a bible before you knock it, all of it.