CERTAIN UNALIENABLE RIGHTS ENDOWED BY GOD
In an essay I wrote last year on the subject of education, I invoked Thomas Jefferson’s immortal words, which introduce 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.”
I argued in this essay that this commitment compels us to provide to the limit of our practical ability, the support for health and education, which will enable every child to pursue his or her “Unalienable Rights.”
I recently found a profoundly meaningful articulation of this thinking in an essay written by Marilynne Robinson, “The Human Spirit and the Good Society.” She observes that “without knowing the nature of Jefferson’s religious beliefs, or doubts, or disbeliefs we do know he had recourse to the language and assumptions of Judeo/Christianity to articulate the vision of human nature. Each person is divinely created and given rights as a gift from God. And since these rights are given to him by God, he can never be deprived of them without defying divine intent.”
Ms. Robinson goes on to make a point which I have become increasingly convinced of and that is “lacking the terms of religion” it is very difficult for us to assert this right of human equality. “Every civilization, including this one,” Robinson writes, “has always been able to reason its way to ignoring or denying the most minimal claims to justice in any form that deserves the name. The temptation is always present and powerful because the rationalizations are always ready to hand. One group is congenitally inferior, another is alien or shiftless, or they are enemies of the people or of the state. Yet others are carriers of intellectual or spiritual contagion.”
Robinson finally asserts, and I agree: “Jefferson makes the human person sacred, once by creation and again by endowment, and thereby sets individual rights outside the reach of rationalization.”
To be sure, I will acknowledge that religion is not a cure all. Like every ideology, it poses the risk of fueling and giving dimension to the invidious and I believe inescapable human tendency to elevate ourselves and gain a sense of worth by comparing ourselves so some “other” that we consider inferior and unworthy. All too often religious beliefs have become highly exclusive and not inclusive. They have morphed to a mind-set if you don’t believe in my religion you are not entitled to basic Rights, even sometimes the Right of Life. We only need to recall the Crusades and, today, witness the deadly conflict between Shiite and Sunni to be confirmed in this saddest of realities.
However, to acknowledge that religious beliefs can be misused to deny the essential human equality of all people in terms of the Rights Jefferson prescribes does not negate for me the belief that it is the essential teaching of all religions—“to love God and to treat our neighbor as ourselves” – which represents our best and perhaps only hope to live in peace and support one another in our imperfect world.
Looking back over the span of the almost 240 years since Jefferson wrote that brilliant introduction to the Declaration o independence, there has been a vital expansion in many if not all parts of the world of what we believe constitute the Rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Examples include the outlawing of the institution of slavery, the conferral of the right to vote to women, and the increasing, though still far from universal, recognition of the right of people to marry another person of the same gender. Our minds must be open to how this list of Rights will properly expand in the future if the dignity and right to Freedom for all people are to be respected.
All and all, it is clear that the precision of Jefferson’s words combined with their openness, is what has allowed us to progress -- albeit unevenly, incompletely, and especially in hindsight at all too often a haltingly and frustratingly slow pace.
I agree with Marilynne Robinson that “if Jefferson could see our world, he would surely feel confirmed in the intuition that led him to couch his anthropology in such open language. Granting the evils of our time, we must also grant the evils of his and the cultural constraints that so notoriously limited his vision. Yet, brilliantly, he factors the sense of historical and human limitation into a compressed, essential statement of human circumstance, making a strength and a principle of liberation of his and our radically imperfect understanding.”
We must carry on, living in truth as we best see that truth.