Two weeks ago, this column set about to rescue our common sense of morality from the false accusation that it is uniquely Christian. It pointed out that the Cardinal Virtues predated Christianity by four centuries. More to the point, the principles of morality are instinctively known by every human being and every society in the history of the world.
That column, focused as it was on the virtues held in common across the globe, did not discuss the unique contribution that Christianity has given to America. That remains a profound part of the story that must be told.
It is not necessary to wade into the argument about whether America is a “Christian nation.” No state can ever be the Church, and the Church cannot do the work of the state. But neither of these confusions need deny that America depends on fundamentally Christian ideas.
G.K. Chesterton wrote, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence …” “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Few societies in the history of the world have ever believed a thing so radical. None had ever placed the idea at the center of its political life. Critics of America deny that we ever believed it at all.
From the slavery of African Americans to the unjust treatment of Native Americans, from the internment of Japanese Americans to the Jim Crow South, critics have plenty of evidence for their charges. But any American who condemns these events and institutions as unjust is, thereby, confirming America’s founding creed to be right and true.
More than this, the “self-evident” nature of America’s creed does not merely mean that every individual always feels it to be true. Rather, “self-evident” is a philosophical term which means that the proof of the assertion is contained in the assertion itself. It needs no proof because any denial of it always winds up in a self-contradiction.
The 56 signers of the Declaration were aware from the start that their bold creed was contradicted by the existence of slavery in the colonies. Those who owned slaves themselves, like Washington and Jefferson, were acutely aware that their declaration required a reckoning with that unjust carry-over from their continental forebears. Nevertheless, they refused to water down the Declaration to condone their shortcomings.
They signed their names to the Declaration not in hypocrisy, but in solemn pledge to make American life—including their own lives—conform to their faith. It would take more than eight decades of strife, capped by a war that cost 620,000 lives, to right that wrong. The 13th Amendment brought America one step closer to a just society.
More steps have been taken since. Injustices toward Native Americans, former slaves and Japanese Americans have been addressed in the succeeding decades. America continues both to believe that all men are created equal, and to strive against every national sin that would make it otherwise.
These twin realities bring us to an even more fundamental creed. It is not stated in the Declaration of Independence, but it is written between the lines. If “all men are created equal,” then all men are likewise capable of redemption. Christ died for all, and anyone can repent and be forgiven by His blood.
Human life is not about perfectionism. No person perfectly lives up to his or her own beliefs, nor can they ever make themselves perfect. Human life is about redemption.
Redemption is not about atoning for your own sins or demanding full payment from those who sin against you. It is about restitution paid by another—ultimately by the blood of God, shed on the cross. That is the uniquely Christian idea embedded in America’s creed.
Our founding fathers rejected the utopian dreams of national perfectionism. They did not insist that the laws of every state be in perfect conformity with the Declaration before they could join the union. They only insisted that every American submit to the founding principles and work continually toward “a more perfect union.”
Right along with the idea that all people are equally capable of being redeemed from their own sins, there is a corresponding requirement they forgive. So, Jesus teaches us to pray, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” No two people can live together under the false dictates of perfectionism. Without the space created by forgiveness, repentance and redemption are impossible.
The turmoil in America today is not a result of imperfectly living up to our national creed that, “all men are created equal.” We have never perfectly lived up to that creed and will continue to struggle against evil until the end of time. But today, that struggle against evil is widely hampered by the unchristian notions of perfectionism.
Perfectionism cannot deal with sins and shortcomings—either in oneself, or in others. Perfectionism cannot countenance movement toward a goal but must have everything perfect immediately. The sins of people long dead are dredged up and imputed to the living. And there is no forgiveness possible.
Lacking the grace that redemption and forgiveness provide, every avenue for repentance and change is closed. Each person, individually, is driven into a posture of self-defense. Admit no wrong. Apology is weakness. Forgiveness is betrayal.
People are no longer defined by their humanity, but by their sins—real or perceived. When people are so defined, it can no longer be said that “all men are created equal.” What a person, people-group, or nation has done makes some less equal than others.
Using the power of guilt to subjugate others is an intoxicating drug. But such fundamental denial of equality, will always come back to subjugate the subjugator. Without the grace of repentance, and forgiveness, equality is not possible.
This understanding is what sets America apart. The Cardinal Virtues describe those attitudes and behaviors required of all people. But even equipped with these virtues, societies degenerate and die. They break up because nobody has ever been able to live up to these virtues. When too many citizens forget forgiveness, a culture will degenerate into a dog-eat-dog world.
The founders of the republic understood that without the grace of redemption, there is no possibility of change for the better. They understood that utopian visions of a perfect society cannot bring about the perfection they desire. Rather, they only freeze in place whatever injustices are accepted to create the utopia.
They also knew that the grace of redemption could not be regulated by the state, but only received through the Church. So, they asserted only what was knowable by nature in their Declaration of Independence. The revelation of redemption through Christ was assumed but left to the Church alone.
While repentance and redemption are possible only in Christ, they are the unwritten foundation of our entire republic. Without them, no reparations and no restitution will ever suffice. Our present turmoil will continue until all society is burnt to the ground.
But through repentance and redemption, human dignity is restored and change for the better is made possible.