The American Creed | The Nation


The American Creed

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The nineteenth-century positivist philosopher Auguste Comte argued that the word "rights" should be struck from the political lexicon. It is a theological and metaphysical conception, he said, and should have no place in modern scientific discourse. Even American Presidents have not always been immune to Comte's logic. Accepting the Republican nomination for Vice President in 1920, Calvin Coolidge said, "Men speak of natural rights, but I challenge anyone to show where in nature any rights existed." That is what laws are for, Coolidge argued. Law creates and protects the rights it establishes.

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Forrest Church
Forrest Church is senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City. His most recent book is The American...

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A Father's Day remembrance of a courageous politician who, in an earlier era, challenged America to resist the apostles of fear who would barter liberty for false security.

Though expressive of the secular modernist gospel, this is an un-American concept, with un-American consequences. When the foundation for law is an arbitrary one, moral checks and balances are relativized. The rights Jefferson lists in the Declaration of Independence are certainly open to interpretation, but, according to our Founders at least, their metaphysical basis--grounded in nature itself--is not.

This American proposition has been controversial since the nation was founded. Concerned that such sweeping theological claims for liberty and equality would undermine the institution of slavery, John Rutledge of South Carolina dismissed Jefferson's interpretation of natural law as having nothing to do with the workings of the state. "Interest alone is the governing principle of nations," he argued. Three-quarters of a century later, Vice President of the Confederate States of America Alexander Stephens characterized Jefferson's foundational principles as "fundamentally wrong." He boasted, "Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition."

Stephens once had quoted Proverbs 25:11 to Abraham Lincoln--"A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver." Here is Lincoln's reply.

The expression of that principle ["all men are created equal"] in our Declaration of Independence was the word "fitly spoken" which has proved an "apple of gold" to us. The Union and the Constitution are the picture of silver subsequently framed around it. The picture was made not to conceal or destroy the apple; but to adorn and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple, not the apple for the picture. So let us act, that neither picture nor apple shall ever be blurred, bruised or broken.

The meaning of American history sounds as clearly from the nobility of the Founders' ideals as it does in the incomplete fulfillment of their promise. For this reason, Lincoln called us "an almost chosen people." We demonstrate our greatness not by force of might or by virtue of our unquestioned economic dominance but through rigorous moral endeavor, ever striving to remake ourselves in our own image. When we have approached true greatness, we have been great not because we were strong but because we fulfilled the mandate of our nation's creed.

Thomas Jefferson's reputation has slipped in recent years. Growing scrutiny of his hypocrisy as a high-minded slaveholder and the late-rising star of John Adams have combined to tarnish his memory. Both of these revisionist schools enhance the understanding of our history and are therefore to be welcomed. But as we rectify the balance, we must not forget that Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence have contributed more to the rectitude of our nation than all other utterances combined. Acknowledging this debt, Abraham Lincoln said, "All honor to Jefferson...to the man who...had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an abstract truth...and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression."

Rather than becoming overheated about the wording of the Pledge of Allegiance, we would do well, as Lincoln did, to recapture its spirit. In fact, to commemorate the lives of those who died a year ago, we could do no better than to reopen the Gettysburg Address and follow Lincoln's counsel: "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

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