I pause in my in my series of Matriarchs and Prophets to take up something that has disturbed me for some time. On this day we increasingly see the display of a particular breed of cynicism parading as idealism; of vice masquerading as virtue. It is particularly virulent at our post secondary educational institutions. You may recognize it. It goes something like this:
There is nothing to celebrate on July 4. There is no American exceptionalism. Far from being “a city on a hill,” America has always been an imperialist nation, subjugating blacks and stealing from the natives, while proclaiming itself a Christian nation . . . .
You know how this goes. For a long time, this sort of thing has troubled me. Undeniably there is some truth to the second sentence. But it has always puzzled me how this nation could be such a magnet for people of all races, religions, and ethnicities if it was truly as evil as often portrayed. Recently, yet another blog on this same theme got me to thinking. Setting aside the notion of imperialism, the facts of slavery and too often mistreatment of natives cannot be denied. The United States, like any other human endeavor, contains deep flaws and some contradictions. At the same time, the words of the Declaration of Independence, the document and event we celebrate today, contain amazing aspirations:
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,
Clearly, these lofty words are in conflict with the holding of slaves. But then, these lofty words were in conflict with the beliefs and practices of nearly every other nation and culture on the face of the earth at that time. And that’s when I realized what had been troubling me. Critics of American exceptionalism focus on those things which America has and had in common with nearly everyone else, and tacitly consider them to be uniquely American, while assuming that many ideas unique to America are in fact common to humanity. Its a backwards, upside-down view of reality.
Let’s take the very first ‘self-evident’ truth: that all men are created equal. Although we take this for granted–even exaggerate it–today, one would be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the world where this was even considered, much less considered self-evident and foundational to liberty. Certainly not England, where the notion of nobility and class still ruled well into the last century. Not in any of the major nations of Europe, Asia, Africa, or even South America. Everywhere else, a select few were considered superior at birth.
Is slavery in conflict with those words? Absolutely. As they recognized. Jefferson, himself a slave owner, understood this very well:
I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever:
And he concluded with these words:
The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.
It is easy to condemn him for not doing more. But surely any Christian can understand the struggle of someone convicted that he is doing wrong, but not finding the means to change.
But here again, we find that what was exceptional was that the words of the Declaration undermined the legitimacy of the institution of slavery. In 1776, slavery was the norm for nearly every nation on earth. Few even questioned it. What was exceptional was not slavery, but declaring it illegitimate. What was exceptional was not regarding some men as better than others, but declaring all men to be equal.
That we failed to live up to this ideal is a matter of sorrow. Humanity is imperfect, so we shall probably never collectively live up to it, and personally only sometimes. But that is no reason to discredit the aspiration. On the contrary, we celebrate even as we strive for fulfillment.
Another exceptional idea is that we are endowed by or Creator with rights. This was a new idea for a nation in 1776. Philosophers might have contemplated it, but here was a nation adopting it. Elsewhere, Kings and Queens, “by the grace of God,” ruled, many still with few restraints. Nearly everywhere else, God endowed kings with rulership; not subjects with rights.
Yet another exceptional idea: “that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men.” In a monarchy in those days, a King might grant a subject favors, but was not troubled with the notion of rights. The idea of citizens having rights which even the King must recognize was percolating in Britain, but would have been laughed at by most rulers in the world. But here we have a declaration that the very purpose of government is to secure those rights given by God. This idea was astounding at the time. Rights don’t come from a sovereign or a government. On the contrary, the purpose of authority is to secure them.
If follows then that government must be accountable for its efforts to secure these rights, and that’s what we read: [Governments derive] their just power from the consent of the governed. In a monarchy, subjects serve the monarch. In the Declaration is embodied the idea that government serves the individual.
It sounds very much like an attempt to embody this idea:
But Jesus summoned them, and said, “You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you, but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant.
Have we failed to live up to these lofty aspirations? Well, of course. But then:
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for
In the end, this is what the cynics in saints clothing condemn: our reach has exceeded our grasp. Should we reach for less? This country is a little over 200 years old. We are still young as a nation. Children often fall when they first try to walk; or when they first ride a bike. First efforts at reading and writing are often halting and imperfect. Wise parents do not punish or condemn children for falling or failing perfection; they encourage them to walk, ride, read, or write better. Focusing on the failures of others does not make us virtuous.
I could go on–but this is a holiday, not a time for writing and reading long treatises. So I will celebrate this day, and these lofty aspirations; celebrate that some dared to write such words, and make the attempt to live them. I, too, will attempt to live them. Better in some ways, perhaps, than the authors themselves. In other ways, perhaps not so well. But I will celebrate as I strive.