Archive for July 4th, 2018

Commentary Upon the Declaration of Independence

July 4, 2018

Have you ever read the whole thing?  Take a few minutes and do it now:  http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/

Of, if you aren’t into reading, listen:  https://www.npr.org/2018/07/04/623836154/a-july-4-tradition-npr-reads-the-declaration-of-independence

I don’t want to try to do a line-by-line commentary, but over the years teaching ethics and American religion I have come back to these words many times.  I have often heard them quoted or misquoted with reverence  but also at times with malice towards other Americans for whom these words were also written; for these words were written not just for those few alive to hear them the first time, but for all nations and all ages. 

In these times, I want to offer my own commentary, and what these words say to me now.

When in the Course of human events it become necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

These are often treated as throwaway lines, like the instrumental introduction to a favorite song, and we only start paying attention when the “real” text starts with “We hold these truths….”  That is a shame.  There is a lot in this paragraph that helps us understand what comes next.  First, they are clearly speaking to the world, not just other Americans.  It’s a big deal.  People didn’t just declare independence willy-nilly.  We’ve gotten rather blasé about redrawing lines on a map, but in 1776 this was seen by some to be tampering with the order of Creation.  God established the nations and fixed their boundaries, and the royal families inherited their right to rule through Adam.  Locke’s First Treatise on Civil Government was devoted to refuting this claim, which would not have been necessary if it were not powerful.  And even if that sort of absolute “divine right of kings” was not always fully embraced by the English, there was still a strong reverence for the established borders and political powers.

The Declaration states that the former English citizens will “…assume…the separate and equal nation to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…”  This shows the deep roots our nation has in John Locke’s philosophy, so it is worth the time to unpack it.  Locke belongs to that political tradition known as “social contract theory.”  It asks us to imagine all people as free and independent individuals, for that is what each of us is essentially even if we’ve never actually lived as free creature outside of a social structure.  What would life be like?  What is it about living as citizens in a society that makes it better than living in anarchy?  What is it that we can be asked to give up in order to be citizens of a civil state or commonwealth, and what is it that the state owes us citizens?  We are. Locke says, essentially free and equal, separate from one another unless we choose to be part of a community.  That is how Nature and Nature’s God created us.  “Nature” and “Nature’s God” are, for Locke, and for Jefferson (the primary author of the Declaration), and for most of the founding fathers, more or less the same thing.  Jefferson, like many of the Founding Fathers, was a religious liberal.  Some were liberal Christians, while others were more Deists.  Deism believed that God created the world to be good and rational, and that everything we needed to know about God could be found through using our human reason to understand the world that God created.  Deists like Jefferson and Franklin did not see any good from supposing that God regularly rips open the Heavens to help His favorites with miracles, that a guy dying on a cross could pay for your moral failures, or any of that supernatural stuff.  Study Nature, and you will understand Nature’s God.  Live a moral life as your human reason reveals it, guided by the religious and philosophical heritage of Moses and Jesus but also Socrates and Plato and (for Jefferson) even Mohammed and other sages, and you will do what God wanted you to do.  God gave us what we needed to live in the world, and left us and it to work things out.

Not everyone who signed that Declaration agreed with Jefferson’s liberal religion.  Thirteen were Presbyterians and one even a Presbyterian pastor, and the British referred to the Revolution as “that Presbyterian revolt.”  But that is who the Founding Fathers were:  religious liberals and conservatives, seculars and devout, aristocrats and plebeians, North and South, joining together despite their differences to risk their lives for a common cause. 

“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—-“  If they were “self-evident,” it wasn’t to everyone, or there wouldn’t have been a war.  Later peoples have wondered how Jefferson could have written these words while himself owning slaves, and while in fact women were legally little better than slaves themselves with no right to own property, to vote, or to pursue most of the activities we assume are natural for adult citizens without male permission.  The fact is, he was deeply conflicted.  His original Declaration included attacks on slavery, which were stripped from the final version to get Southern colonies to sign on.  Some, like John Adams’ wife Abigail, urged that women’s rights be respected, but it took another 145 years for that to happen.  To many, it seemed “self-evident” that nonwhites and non-males were NOT “created equal.”  History has slowly moved to catch up with the true promise of Jefferson’s words.

“That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—-“ Again I say, “Creator” does not mean “The God of Moses.”  It is Nature and Nature’s God that gave us these rights, not a supernatural voice thundering from a mountaintop; these rights are discovered by the light of Nature and Reason, not from reading them off a stone tablet.  That’s what he meant, and if you disagree that’s fine but don’t quote this document to back you up.  “Unalienable rights:”  what does that mean?  It means that you have certain rights that you CANNOT ever be said to have given up.  You always have those rights, even if you think you don’t.  Among those is the right to liberty.  “Liberty” is the right to live as you want.  You may voluntarily agree to limits on your freedom, but only in ways that enhance your overall ability to do what you want.  For example, you can agree to live according to laws and to let courts punish those who wrong you, but only if those laws protect you and others equally and only if you had a part in making those laws by voting for legislators who would write them and vote on them.  By agreeing to live as part of a group, each individual agrees to respect the will of the majority; if you don’t like it, you should leave if it is intolerable, or stay and try to persuade the majority to change its mind if you possibly can. 

This is a vitally important point today.  There is a powerful movement today called “Christian Reconstructionism.”  It was founded by Rousas Rushdoony in the early 20th Century, and had profoundly influenced Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the so-called “Religious Right,” as well as many conservative politicians such as Mike Pence.  It believes that this was a Christian nation, that its laws were not discovered by natural reason and natural religion but supernaturally revealed by God, that Christians should run it and should use the tools provided by democracy to overthrow democracy, denying most people the right to vote (and thus denying most of them their basic liberty) so that only fundamentalist Christians who endorse laissez-faire capitalism should be allowed any voice in government.  This violates the principles of the Declaration on several fronts.  As we’ve seen, it distorts the words “Creator” and “Nature’s God” to mean something they did not mean in the original document; it denies the idea that “all” people are created equal, since only Christians who subscribe to a particular theology which was not endorsed even by the most conservative Founding Fathers; and it treats liberty as something that is in fact “alienable,” capable of being lost or given away.  And this assault on everything for which our Founding Fathers fought is said to be justified because we were “endowed by our Creator”!

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—-“  Governments are human institutions, established by humans, for humans, according to human reason and traditions.  It might surprise you to hear that even the great Christian theologian John Calvin, whose Institutes of the Christian Religion was the most influential theological treatise of the Colonial period, said the same thing.  In his view, while Israel received its laws directly from God, other peoples were taught general moral principles by God but left to work out the details of justice and social welfare according to their own understanding and historical heritage.  Ultimately, the signers of the Declaration of Independence say, all governments derive their power and legitimacy from the consent of the governed, not from the endorsement of a small body of clerics or hereditary nobles.  And because government is justified by the will of the people, it can be deposed and replaced by those same people.

What are the reasons for taking this extreme action now?  As the Declaration says, people generally will endure a lot of abuse from their government, rather than take the risk (not only of war but also lawlessness) of overthrowing it.  (This again is straight out of Locke’s political writings.)  Things must be pretty awful to make a large group of people rise up in rebellion, throwing aside the law-and-order of their established government to try to hopefully replace it with something better.  After all, until the revolution succeeds, there is really nothing in its place but the absence of government:  so what makes the government of King George III worse than nothing?

“He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good…  He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance…”  Who could imagine such a thing?  Would any government, say, criminalize the use of marijuana, a naturally-occurring plant, even when the people and governments of a state think it would be wholesome and necessary for the public good to legalize and tax this substance?  Would any tyrant refuse to allow a state to require non-medical “abortion counselors” to tell their patients truthfully that they are not doctors or medically trained, but merely religious advocates for a peculiar and untraditional interpretation of Christianity?  Would any despot pledge to overturn laws established for forty-five years, even when a vast majority of the people support those laws? 

“He has endeavored to prevent the population of the States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, ….”  The Founding Fathers fought against King George III because he restricted immigration!  That may sound like a total non sequitur, but one of the common justifications for limiting immigration is because “Democrats” just want to import voters who will vote a certain way.  Or, to put it another way, we need to restrict immigration to prevent the increased populations even if, or especially if the people who live in that area now want those immigrants, just because the despot and his party want to limit the numbers of people who aren’t partisans of their group.  The Founding Fathers thought that particular regions and local governments should be allowed to recruit new residents if they wished. 

“For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:  For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment of any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of the States…”  LIke, say, Philando Castile?  We may not have “soldiers” living in our homes, but we do have armed people in neighborhoods who are not answerable to the people who they are sent to control, who kill some who are unarmed, unresisting and sometimes not even breaking any laws, and often those killers are acquitted in what seem to the people to be sham trials; and when the national government is asked to intervene to help prevent these killings, they refuse and even support the right of the armed forces to kill at their discretion.  And when some peacefully protest in an orderly manner by kneeling during the National Anthem at a commercial sporting exhibition, the tyrant calls them “sons of bitches” and says they should be stripped of citizenship and deported.  It’s not exactly the same as quartering soldiers in people’s homes, but it must feel the same for those who feel threatened and abandoned by their leaders’ abrupt reversal of policy from protecting unarmed people to protecting the armed ones

“For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:”  This is the important one.  This is the biggie.  This is the one that could quite likely lead to civil war.  Our country was literally founded on the principle that while taxes are acceptable and even in a sense good, they MUST be made with the will of the people.  And ever since leading Republican activist and leader Paul Weyrich said over thirty years ago that the conservative cause was better supported by stopping people from voting, the GOP has pursued a concerted, conscious and deceptive strategy of stopping as many American citizens from voting as possible.  It has done this by voter ID laws that refuse to look at the identifications that are known to be carried by young people or nonwhites, while accepting other forms of identification (such as gun licenses) that are more likely carried by conservatives.  In North Carolina the state legislature quite openly discussed what sorts of ID black people were likely to have, so they could ban those.  Conservatives have talked about raising the age required for voting and have said quite openly that it’s because they think young people don’t vote conservative.  There has been talk of taking voting rights away from people to protest in favor of “liberal” causes or who were once immigrants but have become citizens.  And our Declaration of Independence makes it clear:  when a government takes your money without giving you the right to vote for the people who write the laws to raise those taxes or decide how the money is spent, that is tyranny and you have a right, even a duty, to fight back.  Conservatives had a right to vote, they lost in 2008 due to their own incompetent destruction of the economy, and they still threatened to take up arms because they didn’t like the Democratic government chosen by the majority.  Now, thanks to gerrymandering and voter suppression laws, we have a government that received a minority of the votes imposing taxes on the majority, not helping even when some are murdered, praising the killers as “very fine people” while protestors are “sons of bitches,” cutting taxes for a small minority of wealthy people while the vast majority either are seeing their taxes rise or are seeing insignificant cuts at best.  If the majority is being taxed without consent, that is a recipe for revolt.  Now, many in the minority party which controls the government are talking about cutting Social Security, which was paid for with payroll taxes paid only by working people, to pay for the tax cuts given to rich people who don’t draw a paycheck and have never paid payroll taxes.  That would mean that the payroll taxes are being collected to give to the rich employers, not to the employees who were counting on using those to retire. 

  “For depriving us in many cases of, of the benefit of Trial by Jury…” Increasingly, people are finding themselves forced into binding arbitration to settle not just civil disputes but even criminal cases.  During the Iraq War an American contractor was gang-raped by several of her male coworkers, and told that she could not sue them under the terms of her work contract; the case had to be resolved through arbitration.  (https://www.thenation.com/article/kbrs-rape-problem/)  The company was well-connected, having previously been led by the then Vice President of the United States.  People who are injured or killed while on the job are regularly stripped of their legal protections by a government that is more concerned with protecting employers from bad publicity. 

“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us…”  I went to school in Charlottesville.  Having out-of-state neo-Nazi and neo-Confederate paramilitary thugs supporting the tyrant parade through the city where my children were born, having them kill one and injure many more people, and having to listen to them being praised and defended as “very fine people” by someone who is paid by my tax money despite receiving fewer votes than his opponent is beyond offensive.  If anyone can be said to have encouraged and excited domestic insurrections among the American people, it is the despot who praises murderers and who attacks professional journalists while praising and being interviewed by right-wing agitators who urge their followers to take up arms against “liberals” whom they accuse, with total disregard for the truth of their words or the consequences of their deeds, of plotting civil war, child molestation or other nonsense—-while the supporters of the tyrant have been shown again and again, to have actually engaged in those deeds.

As Jefferson said, breaking away from one’s government is not a matter to be contemplated lightly, and thus prudence dictates that we should seek every possible other remedy first.  I am not calling for the violent overthrow of the American government, as some conservative governors and other politicians did when Obama was elected.  Despite the fact that the current occupant of the White House has hinted that he would delay national elections and a majority of his party said they would support him, that has not yet happened, and thus there are still peaceful ways to dissent and to struggle for justice.  But the stated goals, the policies and the actions of the Republican Party in its local, state and national chapters has for thirty years been to subvert the election process, to block legal citizens from voting if they seemed likely to vote Democratic, to oppose the rights of cities and states to enforce their own laws regarding marijuana, immigration or weapons if those conflicted with the desires of the GOP donor base, and generally to seek to undermine democracy under the guidance of pastors and politicians who have stated their goal of imposing a “fundamentalist” Christian theocracy.  It is ironic that a fictional television program about a Christian patriarchal dystopia should be so popular when millions of people are so intent on imposing it in reality, and when, with the financial and political support of foreign adversaries, they are so close to achieving their long-held goal. 

Today, the Fourth of July 2018, is the day that the insurrectionist agitator Alex Jones said that “liberals” intended to launch a second Civil War.  This was, of course, a lie.  Other lies told by Jones have led to the parents of murdered children being harassed and threatened.  Jones pushed one of his followers to fire a gun in a pizza parlor by repeatedly claiming that the DNC ran a pedophile ring in the basement.  The restaurant doesn’t even have a basement, much less a pedophile ring, but Jones didn’t care so long as some liberals got killed.  He promotes lies about racial crimes that have pushed his white Christian male listeners to massacre black church members and others.  And this insurrectionist and traitor is heavily promoted and praised by the tyrant occupying the White House.  He “warns” his followers that “liberals” will start a civil war to encourage them to attack the liberals first——and to spend money buying weapons and other products sold by his advertisers, thus making a multimillion dollar profit by “exciting insurrection amongst the people” with the support of the Despot of DC.  People could die from this.  It is as irresponsible and criminal as a mullah calling for jihad, except that the paramilitaries and insurrectionists who agitate for violence against “liberals” and against “feminists” and against ethnic or sexual minorities have the full support and backing of the Republican Party and the Religious Right.  We are on a road that leads to civil war, and the Republican Party is pushing hard on the accelerator.  There are still exits from this highway to disaster, but we the people need to take them. Start right now by making sure you are registered to vote.  You can check online and register in 37 states (https://www.usa.gov/register-to-vote).  While state and local governments have made it more difficult in recent years to try to discourage people’s participation in their government, it is still legal and possible.  Remember that your parents and grandparents in some cases risked their lives so you could have this chance.  For others, like myself, the fight was further back, but my mother was in the DAR.  My family fought for freedom.  Now there are people who have sworn to take it away.  Let’s not let them.

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