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Editing the Declaration of Independence

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 08, 2022

In days bygone, it would have seemed presumptuous to edit the Declaration of Independence, the holy writ of America’s founding. But now an iconoclastic essay in the New York Times attempts to reframe our history, in line with the 1619 Project. They started it. So, with all due respect to Thomas Jefferson and company, let’s revisit the Declaration and offer some editorial suggestions.

The Declaration famously asserts:

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.

With these words, we can discern the influence of the Enlightenment and its egalitarian emphasis. Since the Declaration, equality has been regarded as American as apple pie. In his 19th-century study Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville writes that democracy or equality of conditions is the central and unavoidable tendency in modern western societies. This worries him. Though it seems inevitable, the equality ideology is fraught with dangers.

Equality is central to the modern slogan of “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Even American segregationists proudly proclaimed whites and blacks are “separate but equal.”

Don’t trust them.

A self-evident truth is like gravity; we can’t argue with it. The equality rhetoric is catchy and appealing. We dispute the notion of equity at our own risk—with diversity and inclusion thrown in for good measure. But there is a problem with the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal.” Jefferson’s dogma of faith is not self-evident.

Follow the science.

We are not born equal. Some of us are male; others are female. Our DNA also determines our physical characteristics. Some of us are prone to heart disease. Others have the longevity genes of Moses and live beyond 100. Michael Jordan is a great basketball player. He still needs a good investment advisor to manage his wealth. Although liberty, equality, and fraternity were the battle cry of the French Revolution, somebody must be head and shoulders above the rest to guillotine the enemies of the state.

Even “equal pay for equal work” is a myth.

In the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, the householder sends workers into the vineyard. At day's end, he pays each of them the same one-day pay, even the late-comers. The early birds grumble: “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But the householder replies: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

The dogma of the founding fathers that God "created all men equal" is a recipe for perpetual turmoil. The disdain for inequality fuels endless attempts to achieve equality: a fool’s errand. The strife, the complaining, and the modern “politics of envy” is rooted in the myth of equality.

Thomas Jefferson was a great American statesman. It is painful to disagree with him and with the great men of Philadelphia in 1776. They weren’t keen on the British monarchy, to be sure. So their desire for equality distorted their genius.

The evidence is incontrovertible. God did not create us equal. So let’s revisit the Declaration of Independence and insert this truth based on empirical sociological, anthropological, physiological, medical, and scientific evidence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that even though God did not create all men equal, they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

No, never mind. The revision fails as a revolutionary battle cry, although we gain a measure of scientific and moral accuracy.

If we formally acknowledge our inequalities, we might encourage evil people to take advantage of inequality. Bad people will defraud workmen, engage in insider trading, exhibit contempt for the disadvantaged, and commit the everyday injustices that make life difficult for us and others. King George might respond to the American grievances against the Crown: “You just acknowledged that all men are not created equal! What do you expect? Pay your taxes without representation and shut up.”

Back to the editor’s desk.

The Mystical Body of Christ – the Church – could not function if everyone were equal. The head is useless without the body. The Scriptures teach us that God created us to be just and virtuous. In His infinite wisdom, He endows varying degrees of His gifts on us, and we must use them as best we can, with His grace. The early Christians provide us with results of the inequalities elevated by Christian virtue. "There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:34-35)

The Scriptures may help us edit the Declaration.

Using the dogmatic foundation of our creation that we find in Genesis, consider this revision:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created in the image and likeness of God, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Consensus? Good! The rhetoric is appealing. We also have theological and scientific accuracy. Let’s go on, then, to list the unalienable human rights and enumerate our grievances against His Majesty King George.

Jesus teaches, “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” (Lk 12:48) Equality or the lack of equality is irrelevant when we consider the Christian view of man. What matters is our God-given dignity and a virtuous response to His grace.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: richg - Aug. 09, 2022 5:34 PM ET USA

    You beat me to it with the last iteration. Equal in dignity, yes, but not the same. Well done.