Tom Gilson

“All Men Are Created Equal”

I’m a week late for a certain anniversary date: it was 145 years, one week, and one day ago that Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. He thought his short speech rather a failure at the time, but upon its publication, the nation and later the world came to regard it as a master statement of democratic principles, as well as an eloquent word of honor for those who fought for democracy.

I was required to memorize it in the eighth grade, for which I am much more grateful now than I was at the time. More than once since then I have stood inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, with the words of this message inscribed hugely on the wall to my left, the massive Lincoln statue’s right, and his Second Inaugural Address on the wall to my right. The first time I was there I tried to read these words to my young children; I could not make it through without my voice breaking. Americans owe a huge Thanksgiving Day debt of gratitude to and for Abraham Lincoln.

A crucial belief underpins both of the addresses adorning his memorial. I demonstrate that belief by this, the beginning of the Gettysburg Address with just one word altered:

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are evolved equal.

Apart from the admitted anachronism (The Origin of Species was only a handful of years past its first publication), it is nevertheless impossible to imagine Lincoln believing this. It’s equally difficult (even in imagination) to ascribe such a belief to Jefferson, who much earlier had written that all men are created equal. I do not know Lincoln’s religious beliefs, though there must be some light of them shining through his 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation, which begins,

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God…

Jefferson’s beliefs were by no means those of Biblical Christianity, yet his Declaration of Independence centers on the rights endowed upon us by our Creator. He believed in God as Creator if not in Christ as Redeemer. Is it a mere accident of historical timing that when these great men spoke of unalienable rights and of equality, they grounded these ideas in a Creator rather than in some mindless cause for our existence?

Let me ask it a different way. Is there something in mindless origins that implies equality among humans?

Let me ask it a different way still. Is there something in evolution that implies equality of organisms within a population? Certainly not; it is the inequality of organisms within a population that drives evolution onward, or so it is said.

America’s rights and freedoms were based, historically speaking, on belief in a Creator. This is no mere matter of rhetoric. Justice, mercy, worth, value: in and under all of these, there is no difference between one person and another as we stand before God. Our practice of these ideals through human government is far from perfect; but under God, there is at least a north star, a firm principle, a definition of these ideals to guide and to correct us. George Washington put it this way in his Farewell Address:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports…. And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure; reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. ‘Tis substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.

Nowadays our ideals seem to be based on little more than our history–“What America is all about” (which depends of course on whom you ask)–and upon some vague sense of justice that sometimes seems no more stable than sentiment. The anchor for our beliefs has been slipped. The name that seamen give to the end of the anchor line (or rode) that attaches to the vessel is “the bitter end.” Story has it that it got its name because that’s the way you feel–bitter!–if by some mistake in handling, you see that end of it falling overboard, attached to the anchor below and nothing above. When that happens, you’ve left an expensive piece of hardware firmly attached to the bottom of the sea, with no means of recovery. Worse yet, in some situations: you’re suddenly adrift in whatever current or winds may be playing around you.

I wonder if (stretching the metaphor just a bit further) we are increasingly aiming ourselves toward a bitter end, by letting loose of the Creator upon whom our American doctrine has been moored. And yet it is Thanksgiving, and God is still God. He is the source of human rights and justice, and remains so whether many of us acknowledge him to be or not. Thanksgiving is not only about past blessings, it is about future hope. Hope in “what America is all about”? No. Hope in the Creator who inspired and led America in all its best ideals.

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8 thoughts on ““All Men Are Created Equal”

  1. I’m taking the right of first comment here to say this: the matter of “America’s Christian Origins” is as contentious as the day is long. I did not claim a Christian origin for America; that’s a matter for people more trained in history to discuss and decide. I have little doubt, however, that belief in God (in some form) was central to the Founders’ approach to the new nation and its government.

    I am quite convinced of the importance, stated above, of a transcendent north star to guide our principles of justice and democracy. Having said that, it’s quite possible that this is all that I will say on the subject this time. I am working on other discussions and issues in the comments, and because of the time those prior discussions will require, I think it unlikely that I will have additional to write here. I thought it might be wise to announce that in advance rather than leaving people to wonder if I do not take part in any discussion this post may kick up.

  2. …conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are evolved equal.

    A great way to make the point, Tom. That little alteration transforms a truly believable statement into one that no one can honestly believe.

    Hope everyone had a great and blessed Thanksgiving day.

  3. So, every conceivable deity will create everyone equal?

    I think the American people want a God who creates us all as equals.* Americans extrapolate God from their own ideals.

    Well, I have ideals, too. It’s just that I don’t need to postulate some metaphysical entity with the power to make my ideals absolutes. I can just advocate for my ideals.

    *This hasn’t always been true. Advocates for slavery didn’t believe God created all men equal. Also, in other civilizations, nobility believed God created them above the common folk.

  4. You can’t seriously engage on these issues if you keep thinking that your conception of god is the only possible conception. It very plainly isn’t. And since you’re attempting to make your point in general terms without specific reference to Christianity, my point is reasonable.

    As just one example, didn’t Christians formerly believe that some men (e.g., the ones who weren’t white) were created as lesser men? Obviously, they could conceive of a god who did not create everyone equally.

  5. You can’t seriously engage on these issues if you keep thinking that your conception of god is the only possible conception.

    As far as I know, it’s the only God that claims to be *both* the grounding for all reality, and the creator of ‘all men’ in his image (thus making them equal). What god concept are you thinking of?

  6. dl,

    Obviously not every conceivable deity would create all men (and women) as equals. Look at Hinduism.

    The God who informed the beliefs of the founding fathers is the God we are talking about. There is no need to consider every conceivable deity. My question marks were about this: why on earth do we need to bring every conceivable deity into the discussion?

    I think the American people want a God who creates us all as equals.* Americans extrapolate God from their own ideals.

    With reference to the historical documents in this post, doctor(logic), you are wrong to an extent that you have seldom achieved here in the past.

    Well, I have ideals, too. It’s just that I don’t need to postulate some metaphysical entity with the power to make my ideals absolutes. I can just advocate for my ideals.

    And others can advocate for theirs. Please see the original post for why that makes such a difference.

    As to the history of slavery, see Tim Keller’s excellent historical explanation in audio here. I think it’s the one on Injustice.

    I hate to just send you elsewhere for that, but I don’t have time to write a better response this morning.

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