Bill Moyers: ‘We Are This Close to Losing Our Democracy to the Mercenary Class’

NOTE – here’s a short video – Bill Moyers: ‘We Are This Close to Losing Our Democracy to the Mercenary Class’ – video

By Bill Moyers, TomDispatch, posted on Alternet,org,  December 12, 2013  

I met Supreme Court Justice William Brennan in 1987 when I was creating a series for public television called In Search of the Constitution, celebrating the bicentennial of our founding document.  By then, he had served on the court longer than any of his colleagues and had written close to 500 majority opinions, many of them addressing fundamental questions of equality, voting rights, school segregation, and — in New York Times v. Sullivan in particular — the defense of a free press.

Those decisions brought a storm of protest from across the country.  He claimed that he never took personally the resentment and anger directed at him.  He did, however, subsequently reveal that his own mother told him she had always liked his opinions when he was on the New Jersey court, but wondered now that he was on the Supreme Court, “Why can’t you do it the same way?” His answer: “We have to discharge our responsibility to enforce the rights in favor of minorities, whatever the majority reaction may be.”

Although a liberal, he worried about the looming size of government. When he mentioned that modern science might be creating “a Frankenstein,” I asked, “How so?”  He looked around his chambers and replied, “The very conversation we’re now having can be overheard. Science has done things that, as I understand it, makes it possible through these drapes and those windows to get something in here that takes down what we’re talking about.”

That was long before the era of cyberspace and the maximum surveillance state that grows topsy-turvy with every administration.  How I wish he were here now — and still on the Court!

My interview with him was one of 12 episodes in that series on the Constitution.  Another concerned a case he had heard back in 1967.  It involved a teacher named Harry Keyishian who had been fired because he would not sign a New York State loyalty oath.  Justice Brennan ruled that the loyalty oath and other anti-subversive state statutes of that era violated First Amendment protections of academic freedom.

I tracked Keyishian down and interviewed him.  Justice Brennan watched that program and was fascinated to see the actual person behind the name on his decision.  The journalist Nat Hentoff, who followed Brennan’s work closely, wrote, “He may have seen hardly any of the litigants before him, but he searched for a sense of them in the cases that reached him.”  Watching the interview with Keyishian, he said, “It was the first time I had seen him.  Until then, I had no idea that he and the other teachers would have lost everything if the case had gone the other way.”

Toward the end of his tenure, when he was writing an increasing number of dissents on the Rehnquist Court, Brennan was asked if he was getting discouraged. He smiled and said, “Look, pal, we’ve always known — the Framers knew — that liberty is a fragile thing.  You can’t give up.”  And he didn’t.

The Donor Class and Streams of Dark Money

The historian Plutarch warned us long ago of what happens when there is no brake on the power of great wealth to subvert the electorate.  “The abuse of buying and selling votes,” he wrote of Rome, “crept in and money began to play an important part in determining elections.  Later on, this process of corruption spread in the law courts and to the army, and finally, when even the sword became enslaved by the power of gold, the republic was subjected to the rule of emperors.”

We don’t have emperors yet, but we do have the Roberts Court that consistently privileges the donor class.

We don’t have emperors yet, but we do have a Senate in which, as a study by the political scientist Larry Bartels reveals, “Senators appear to be considerably more responsive to the opinions of affluent constituents than to the opinions of middle-class constituents, while the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their senators’ roll call votes.”

We don’t have emperors yet, but we have a House of Representatives controlled by the far right that is now nourished by streams of “dark money” unleashed thanks to the gift bestowed on the rich by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case.

We don’t have emperors yet, but one of our two major parties is now dominated by radicals engaged in a crusade of voter suppression aimed at the elderly, the young, minorities, and the poor; while the other party, once the champion of everyday working people, has been so enfeebled by its own collaboration with the donor class that it offers only token resistance to the forces that have demoralized everyday Americans.

Writing in the Guardian recently, the social critic George Monbiot commented,

“So I don’t blame people for giving up on politics… When a state-corporate nexus of power has bypassed democracy and made a mockery of the voting process, when an unreformed political system ensures that parties can be bought and sold, when politicians [of the main parties] stand and watch as public services are divvied up by a grubby cabal of privateers, what is left of this system that inspires us to participate?”

Why are record numbers of Americans on food stamps? Because record numbers of Americans are in poverty. Why are people falling through the cracks? Because there are cracks to fall through. It is simply astonishing that in this rich nation more than 21 million Americans are still in need of full-time work, many of them running out of jobless benefits, while our financial class pockets record profits, spends lavishly on campaigns to secure a political order that serves its own interests, and demands that our political class push for further austerity. Meanwhile, roughly 46 million Americans live at or below the poverty line and, with the exception of Romania, no developed country has a higher percent of kids in poverty than we do.  Yet a study by scholars at Northwestern University and Vanderbilt finds little support among the wealthiest Americans for policy reforms to reduce income inequality.

Class Prerogatives

Listen!  That sound you hear is the shredding of the social contract.

Ten years ago the Economist magazine — no friend of Marxism — warned: “The United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society.”  And as a recent headline in the Columbia Journalism Review put it: “The line between democracy and a darker social order is thinner than you think.”

We are this close – this close! – to losing our democracy to the mercenary class. So close it’s as if we’re leaning way over the rim of the Grand Canyon waiting for a swift kick in the pants.

When Justice Brennan and I talked privately in his chambers before that interview almost 20 years ago, I asked him how he had come to his liberal sentiments.  “It was my neighborhood,” he said.  Born to Irish immigrants in 1906, as the harsh indignities of the Gilded Age brought hardship and deprivation to his kinfolk and neighbors, he saw “all kinds of suffering — people had to struggle.”  He never forgot those people or their struggles, and he believed it to be our collective responsibility to create a country where they would have a fair chance to a decent life.  “If you doubt it,” he said, “read the Preamble [to the Constitution].”

He then asked me how I had come to my philosophy about government (knowing that I had been in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations).  I don’t remember my exact words, but I reminded him that I had been born in the midst of the Great Depression to parents, one of whom had to drop out of school in the fourth grade, the other in the eighth, because they were needed in the fields to pick cotton to help support their families.

Franklin Roosevelt, I recalled, had been president during the first 11 years of my life.  My father had listened to his radio “fireside chats” as if they were gospel; my brother went to college on the G.I. Bill; and I had been the beneficiary of public schools, public libraries, public parks, public roads, and two public universities.  How could I not think that what had been so good for me would be good for others, too?

That was the essence of what I told Justice Brennan.  Now, I wish that I could talk to him again, because I failed to mention perhaps the most important lesson about democracy I ever learned.

On my 16th birthday in 1950, I went to work for the daily newspaper in the small East Texas town where I grew up.  It was a racially divided town — about 20,000 people, half of them white, half of them black — a place where you could grow up well-loved, well-taught, and well-churched, and still be unaware of the lives of others merely blocks away.  It was nonetheless a good place to be a cub reporter: small enough to navigate but big enough to keep me busy and learning something new every day.  I soon had a stroke of luck.  Some of the old-timers in the newsroom were on vacation or out sick, and I got assigned to report on what came to be known as the “Housewives’ Rebellion.”  Fifteen women in town (all white) decided not to pay the Social Security withholding tax for their domestic workers (all black).

They argued that Social Security was unconstitutional, that imposing it was taxation without representation, and that — here’s my favorite part — “requiring us to collect [the tax] is no different from requiring us to collect the garbage.”  They hired themselves a lawyer — none other than Martin Dies, Jr., the former congressman best known, or worst known, for his work as head of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the witch-hunting days of the 1930s and 1940s.  They went to court — and lost.  Social Security was constitutional, after all.  They held their noses and paid the tax.

The stories I helped report were picked up by the Associated Press and circulated nationwide.  One day, the managing editor, Spencer Jones, called me over and pointed to the AP ticker beside his desk.  Moving across the wire was a notice citing the reporters on our paper for the reporting we had done on the “rebellion.”  I spotted my name and was hooked.  In one way or another, after a detour through seminary and then into politics and government, I’ve been covering the class war ever since.

Those women in Marshall, Texas, were among its advance guard.  Not bad people, they were regulars at church, their children were my classmates, many of them were active in community affairs, and their husbands were pillars of the business and professional class in town.  They were respectable and upstanding citizens all, so it took me a while to figure out what had brought on that spasm of reactionary defiance.  It came to me one day, much later: they simply couldn’t see beyond their own prerogatives.

Fiercely loyal to their families, to their clubs, charities, and congregations — fiercely loyal, in other words, to their own kind — they narrowly defined membership in democracy to include only people like themselves.  The black women who washed and ironed their laundry, cooked their families’ meals,  cleaned their bathrooms, wiped their children’s bottoms, and made their husbands’ beds, these women, too, would grow old and frail, sick and decrepit, lose their husbands and face the ravages of time alone, with nothing to show for their years of labor but the creases on their brows and the knots on their knuckles.  There would be nothing for them to live on but the modest return on their toil secured by the collaborative guarantee of a safety net.

The Unfinished Work of America

In one way or another, this is the oldest story in America: the struggle to determine whether “we, the people” is a moral compact embedded in a political contract or merely a charade masquerading as piety and manipulated by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own way of life at the expense of others.

I should make it clear that I don’t harbor any idealized notion of politics and democracy.  Remember, I worked for Lyndon Johnson.  Nor do I romanticize “the people.” You should read my mail and posts on right-wing websites.  I understand the politician in Texas who said of the state legislature, “If you think these guys are bad, you should see their constituents.”

But there is nothing idealized or romantic about the difference between a society whose arrangements roughly serve all its citizens (something otherwise known as social justice) and one whose institutions have been converted into a stupendous fraud.  That can be the difference between democracy and plutocracy.

Toward the end of Justice Brennan’s tenure on the Supreme Court, he made a speech that went to the heart of the matter.  He said:

“We do not yet have justice, equal and practical, for the poor, for the members of minority groups, for the criminally accused, for the displaced persons of the technological revolution, for alienated youth, for the urban masses… Ugly inequities continue to mar the face of the nation. We are surely nearer the beginning than the end of the struggle.”

And so we are. One hundred and fifty years ago, Abraham Lincoln stood on the blood-soaked battlefield of Gettysburg and called Americans to “the great task remaining.”  That “unfinished work,” as he named it, remained the same then as it was when America’s founding generation began it. And it remains the same today: to breathe new life into the promise of the Declaration of Independence and to assure that the Union so many have sacrificed to save is a union worth saving.


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The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence: A Transcription

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes 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.

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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

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, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

The 56 signatures on the Declaration appear in the positions indicated:

Column 1
Button Gwinnett
Lyman Hall
George Walton

Column 2
North Carolina:
William Hooper
Joseph Hewes
John Penn
South Carolina:
Edward Rutledge
Thomas Heyward, Jr.
Thomas Lynch, Jr.
Arthur Middleton

Column 3
John Hancock
Samuel Chase
William Paca
Thomas Stone
Charles Carroll of Carrollton
George Wythe
Richard Henry Lee
Thomas Jefferson
Benjamin Harrison
Thomas Nelson, Jr.
Francis Lightfoot Lee
Carter Braxton

Column 4
Robert Morris
Benjamin Rush
Benjamin Franklin
John Morton
George Clymer
James Smith
George Taylor
James Wilson
George Ross
Caesar Rodney
George Read
Thomas McKean

Column 5
New York:
William Floyd
Philip Livingston
Francis Lewis
Lewis Morris
New Jersey:
Richard Stockton
John Witherspoon
Francis Hopkinson
John Hart
Abraham Clark

Column 6
New Hampshire:
Josiah Bartlett
William Whipple
Samuel Adams
John Adams
Robert Treat Paine
Elbridge Gerry
Rhode Island:
Stephen Hopkins
William Ellery
Roger Sherman
Samuel Huntington
William Williams
Oliver Wolcott
New Hampshire:
Matthew Thornton

The American Creed

by Forrest Church, The Nation, February 5, 2005

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional will almost certainly be struck down in any ruling by the Supreme Court. Though the contested words “under God” were added for all the wrong reasons at the height of the McCarthy epidemic in 1954, the amended pledge nonetheless conforms to the Founders’ blueprint as expressed in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. Should we somehow manage to discern Abraham Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory” through the din of patriotic soundbites, we might seize this opportunity to reflect more deeply on American first principles.

In many quarters of the world today America is resented–even hated–for its perceived embrace of godless and value-free materialism and the felt imposition of this moral “decadence” on world society. The first American armed conflict of the twenty-first century is being cast by its aggressor in religious terms as a jihad against the infidel, with America blasphemed as “the great Satan.” Osama bin Laden proclaimed that those who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were martyrs, servants of Allah dying for a holy cause–a view not restricted to terrorists alone. America is caricatured in much of the Muslim world as a godless society wedded to materialism and wanton in the exercise of its power around the globe.

To the extent that this caricature is justified, we have lost our way. American values go far deeper than untrammeled laissez-faire capitalism and have nothing to do with materialism. They rest on the firm spiritual foundation on which the nation was established. At its best, America witnesses to a deep belief in liberty and equality, with the intrinsic worth and dignity of every human being posited at birth. These are religious principles, not arbitrarily fashioned but–in the mind of the Founders–grounded in nature itself.

Some argue that, as truth claims, all beliefs are of equal value (except, perhaps, the belief that all beliefs are not of equal value). By this reading, there are no overarching stories or visions of the good life through which our lives acquire meaning. Yet our nation enshrines a radically different truth–an American vision, if you will–from that espoused by fundamentalist-sponsored terrorism. From a religious perspective, this struggle, one that will continue into the indefinite future, is not between God and godlessness but between competing theological worldviews, with diametrically opposed conceptions of the role religion should play in society to advance the greater good.

It was an English author, G.K. Chesterton, who first said, “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed,” one set forth with “theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence.” He memorably called America “a nation with the soul of a church.” Though the American Creed as fashioned by Thomas Jefferson and perfected by the Continental Congress rests upon a clear separation between church and state, the body politic does have a soul. Chesterton assumed that the American Creed condemned atheism, since it secures human rights as inalienable gifts from God. The saving irony is that this same creed also protects atheists against the coercion of believers.

In An American Dilemma, a compendious study of American racism, another foreign observer, Sweden’s Gunnar Myrdal, recognized the self-correcting nature of what he too called the American Creed. “America,” Myrdal concludes, “is continuously struggling for its soul.” Pointing to the ongoing battle for civil rights, he recognized the tension between American ideals and their incomplete fulfillment. Yet unlike much self-criticism–which can glibly lapse into self-loathing–the critique of this thoughtful observer was charged with appreciation and hope. He read American history as “the gradual realization of the American Creed.”

The nation’s greatest moral leaders have viewed American history in the same light. Abraham Lincoln saw the Declaration of Independence as spiritually regenerative. The touchstone of what he called our “ancient faith,” its “sacred principles” establish the spiritual and political foundation for America. A century later–forty years ago–within sight of the memorials dedicated to Jefferson and Lincoln in Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. inspired a new generation of American citizens when he said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”

The word “creed” sounds forbidding and ecclesiastical. The American Creed is neither, but it is steadfast in its principles and enduring enough to redeem the nation’s history whenever we stray from their course. Capturing the essence of the American experiment, the American Creed affirms those truths our Founders held self-evident: justice for all, because we are all created equal; and liberty for all, because we are all endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights. America’s fidelity to this creed is judged by history. Living up to it remains a constant challenge. But it invests our nation with spiritual purpose and–if we honor its precepts–a moral destiny.

As understood by Lincoln, King and many others, America is a union of faith and freedom, in which faith elevates freedom and freedom tempers faith. The American Creed doesn’t impose parochial faith upon its citizens but protects freedom, including freedom of religion, by invoking a more universal authority. Though employing the language of faith, it transcends religious particulars, uniting all citizens in a single covenant. It treats believer and atheist alike, offering each the same protections, securing freedom both of and from religion. Equally important, it protects freedom from itself, tempering excesses of individual license by postulating a higher moral code. In America, faith and freedom wed to form a union greater than either alone is capable of sustaining.

Most Americans perceive no fundamental conflict between the practice of their own individual religious belief and the latitude given to their neighbors to practice theirs. At our best, we celebrate both what sets us apart (specific doctrinal convictions) and what holds us together (a common faith). Fundamentalists of the right and left struggle more than the average citizen with such ambiguity. Respectively seeking to expand the compass of their piety or to remove every vestige of it from the public square, they shape the national debate both on church and state, and on religion and politics. Negative images of each other, advocates for a Christian or a secularist vision of America alike misread the Founders’ script.

As an “ism,” secularism suggests a rejection of or hostility toward religion. Taken in this sense, it dates from the French, not the American, Revolution. If ours is explicitly not a Christian nation, it is nonetheless built on a foundation of belief, not on a foundation of skepticism. That church and state are separate in America, to the signal advantage of both, is an expression, not a rejection, of this belief. “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education,” George Washington once wrote, “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Washington, who mentions Christ not once in the twenty volumes of his collected papers, alludes here not to the saving virtues of any specific dogma but to the highest attributes with which we are endowed at birth by the Creator.

In the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, “the separate and equal station” to which free people are entitled is guaranteed by “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” According to the Founders, the rights with which we are endowed by nature are inalienable. Laws may abridge them, but such laws are without higher sanction. Dating back to the Greeks and emerging as the centerpiece of Enlightenment science and philosophy, natural law is read from the script of the Creation, which trumps all lesser revelations. To Jefferson, nature’s laws were self-evident–a late substitution in the Declaration of Independence for “sacred and undeniable.” And the rights they confirmed were inalienable (the original “inherent and inalienable” considered a redundancy). Its primary draftsman, Jefferson described the Declaration of Independence as “an expression of the American mind”–”the genuine effusion of the soul of our country.” Its preamble stands as a summation of our aspirations as a people. What is more, it accomplishes this with conscious intent. It proclaims itself to be the American Creed.

None of Jefferson’s propositions are original, but in 1776, when placed in the context of all previous government charters, Jefferson’s “self-evident” truths were unique in the history of statecraft. Never before had a government limited or bound itself in such a manner, or established itself on so republican and egalitarian a footing. The divine (or, if you would prefer, natural) authority for human laws is invoked in a strikingly novel way. “Equal and exact justice to all…of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political…should be the creed of our political faith,” Jefferson stated in his first inaugural address. “And should we wander from [these principles] in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.”

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.

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.”

Forrest Church is senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City and author of The American Creed: A Spiritual and Patriotic Primer, St. Martin’s Press, which is the source of this article. His other books include God and Other Famous Liberals, The Seven Deadly Virtues and Everyday Miracles. posted February 5, 2005

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A status report on the Declaration of Independence – 1776 to 2012 – July 2012

Editorial – Uptown Neighborhood News, Minneapolis, MN – by Phyllis Stenerson

“Our dignity and honor as a nation never came from our perfection as a society or as a people: it came from the belief that in the end, this was a country which would pursue justice as the compass pursues the pole: that although we might deviate, we would return and find our path. This is what we must now do.”
John Adams – second President of the United States

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“…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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” – from the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

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It’s been 236 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence and we Americans are still fighting over some of the same issues that divided the founders. The actual words in the document are few but we know from the founders’ writings that most envisioned a country with certain inalienable rights for all.

The signers of the Declaration were all white male property owners but over the years the government has rightfully acted, however gradually and always through a struggle, to extend certain unalienable rights to other genders, races and classes.

These rights include liberty and the pursuit of happiness with the latter meaning well being, not perpetual fun. Since mere survival needs money, we can say this includes economic justice.

As frequently happens, when I’m trying to put my thoughts into words, I find that someone else has already said what I’m trying to say. In this case, journalist Bill Moyers, one of the most respected commentators on democracy:
“…this is the oldest story in America: the struggle to determine whether “we, the people” is a spiritual idea embedded in a political reality – one nation, indivisible – or merely a charade masquerading as piety and manipulated by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own way of life at the expense of others… you have to respect the conservatives for their successful strategy in gaining control of the national agenda. Their stated and open aim is to change how America is governed – to strip from government all its functions except those that reward their rich and privileged benefactors…So much for compassionate conservatism…”

The radical assault by conservative extremists on the founding premise of America – that all men are equal and have certain unalienable Rights – generates cognitive dissonance on a massive scale. Many of us can’t comprehend that an alternative interpretation of American democracy has been concocted and marketed to the citizenry and is being sold as reality by a leading candidate for the Presidency. And that few in the mainstream media are challenging this twisted thinking. But it’s true and we need to use every opportunity – including Independence Day, the Fourth of July – remind ourselves and others of America’s real story, that of pursuing equal rights for all.

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Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life…For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.”
Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets