THE AMERICAN CREED – an address

An Address delivered at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association by Forrest Church, Quebec, Canada, June 21, 2002

I speak to you this evening in the great nation of Canada as an American citizen to my fellow Americans. Yet, in so doing, I invoke the broad spirit of our Unitarian Universalist Principles and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Each is emblematic of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee’s noble mission and heritage. In fact, the language of the two are in many respects interchangeable. Among other things, the statement of principles guiding contemporary Unitarian Universalism speaks of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; the rights of conscience and the use of the democratic process;” and “the goal of world community with peace liberty, and justice for all.” Proclaiming all people to be “endowed with reason and conscience,” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948) affirms that, “The inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation for freedom, justice, and peace in the world.”

This evening I shall consider the source for these uplifting affirmations. It is Thomas Jefferson’s preamble to the American Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable 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.

In 1949, when the Unitarian evangelist A. Powell Davies described Unitarianism as America’s Real Religion, he persuasively coupled the religious views of Thomas Jefferson to American first principles. Inspiring thousands of his fellow citizens to embrace our faith, Davies made explicit the connection between Unitarian core values and the faith upon which America was established: “Jefferson (Davies wrote) had seen that something deep within the [human] heart requires [freedom and neighborliness], that it breaks out from history like the brightening of the sky against a night of darkness; that it speaks in conscience and the moral law. That was Jefferson’s faith and he found it because something deeper than his own life had spoken to him. It was America’s real religion.”

Many Unitarian Universalists today would instead excommunicate Thomas Jefferson from our communion for betraying–as a slaveholder–the spirit of our faith. Apart from Jefferson’s abridgment of his own ideals in practice (which I shall get to in a moment), there are three possible reasons that contemporary Unitarian Universalists might cringe at embracing these powerful and redemptive words. Feminist sensibilities with regard to the pronoun “man”; anti-theistic theological scruples; and, American self-loathing. Since to reject Jefferson’s founding principles entails jettisoning the centerpiece of our own tradition, let me address each point briefly.

Feminism’s foremothers, our Unitarian forebears Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, pointedly chose the Declaration of Independence as their proof text that men and women are created equal and therefore deserve equal rights. Their Declaration of Sentiments ratified in the great feminist convention of Seneca Falls in 1848 has a familiar ring.

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one 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 that impel them to such a course. We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.

As Anthony and Stanton make clear, women were presupposed by the founders in the generic use of “man” and “mankind.” The Declaration of Independence thus served as a proof text for their own crusade. It does not read “Some are created equal,” or “All males are created equal,” or even, as was actually proposed by some Americans, that “All whites are created equal.” Jefferson’s clear affirmation that all people are created equal is American bedrock, grounded not so much theistically, by the way, as it is in the laws of nature, which (for Anthony and Stanton as well as Jefferson) mandate full equality. According to the foundations of this encompassing theology, natural rights belong to all. The theological grounding is important, because nature’s law, so understood, forbids abridgment by any lesser authority. As for American self-loathing, Stanton and Anthony resisted the temptation. Enforced inequality may represent American practice but it betrays American ideals. They judged America in the name of America. That was the very point they were trying to make. In fact, to appreciate the full power of Jefferson’s words, one almost has to read them through the eyes of those whose inalienable rights are abridged or denied by governmental writ. American feminism represents a valiant, yet unfinished campaign to tune the nation’s history to the key of its ideals.

The relationship between American and Unitarian moral principle has been sounded often and effectively throughout history. To offer but one additional example, the Unitarian prophet and abolitionist Theodore Parker considered the Declaration of Independence “the great political idea of America,” placing it as the cornerstone of his campaign against slavery. To Parker, the Declaration’s relationship to the American Constitution was akin to that of Jesus to the Bible. Both gave spirit to the letter, fostering aspirations that, if risen to, would establish “the reign of righteousness, the [realm] of justice, which all noble hearts long for, and labor to produce, the ideal whereunto [humankind] slowly draws near.” Part of the document’s power lay in how profoundly it held the nation under judgment. William Henry Channing, Ellery’s nephew, a champion of Native American rights and far more stalwart an abolitionist than his uncle, recognized Jefferson’s “declaration of principles” to be “the clearest announcement of human rights” in all of history. His often stirring critique of America was all the more powerful, both rhetorically and in fact, for being based on American tenets. To Channing, Jefferson’s was the text by which we measure our moral progress as a people.

With this as a backdrop, I invite you to reconsider both the rhetorical and redemptive power of what I, following in the spirit of our forebears and adopting the language of Martin Luther King, Jr., call the American Creed.

Not long ago, Roger Wilkins, nephew of the civil rights leader Roy Wilkins and a professor of American history at George Mason University, visited the Jefferson Memorial. Standing beneath the dome of a monument dedicated to the memory of one of America’s most honored slave owners, Wilkins brooded on Jefferson’s complicity in his family’s bondage. Then those immortal words recorded on a single slab of marble sang out and touched his soul. Wilkens could not help but marvel at “the throbbing phrases at the core of the American hymn to freedom that Jefferson composed and flung out against the sky.”

Roger Wilkins is an American. Like all Americans, he participates in an unfinished story. This story is both noble and tragic, but its genius is emblazoned from the beginning. “The Declaration of Independence,” Wilkins concluded, “for all the ambiguity around it, constitutes the Big Bang in the physics of freedom and equality in America.”

When the founders gathered one wiltingly hot July in Philadelphia to hammer out their dreams into a single, ringing declaration, they were fashioning precepts as sacred as they were secular. As a group, they were not notably religious men. But they were united, almost miraculously, in forging a union that transcended, even as it encompassed, the historical particularity of the present crisis. Fired with ardor and apprehension–the prospect of a long war, its outcome uncertain –America’s first citizens performed an almost perfect act of alchemy. In their crucible were transfigured the elements that would reflect America’s promise and set the measure for its fulfillment.

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.

The word “Creed” sounds forbidding and ecclesiastical, especially to Unitarian Universalist ears. The American Creed is neither, but it is steadfast in its principles, enduring enough to redeem the nation’s history whenever we stray from their course.

Non-Americans may appreciate the nation’s unique foundation more clearly than Americans themselves do. 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 (as interpreted in the Bill of Rights) also protects atheists against the coercion of believers.

In America’s 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.”

Unlike the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence is so explicit in its language that proponents of slavery finally had to reject it. In 1861, Vice President of the Confederate States of America Alexander Stephens conceded that the Declaration proclaims liberty and equality for all and that Jefferson himself believed slavery to be in violation of the laws of nature. Jefferson’s ideas “were fundamentally wrong,” Stephens proclaimed. “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.

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. Inclusive and chastening, the American Creed rings forth the good news that all people are entitled to equal justice and invested with equal dignity. A century later–forty years ago–within sight of the memorials dedicated to Jefferson and Lincoln in Washington D. C., 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.”

As understood by Lincoln, King and many others, America is a union of faith and freedom, a union 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 convenant. 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.

As for the theology implicit in this broad and generous creed, when Jefferson said, “I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” people remember what he swore, but tend to forget on whose altar he swore it. Those who don’t forget sometimes jump to the conclusion that he had his hand on the Bible when he made this oath. He did not. Jefferson swore eternal hostility to every form of tyranny on the altar of nature and nature’s God. Others among the founders may have been guided to like views by the scriptures, but Jefferson’s religious convictions came straight off the presses of the Enlightenment.

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 is original–creedal originality is an oxymoron–but in 1776, when placed in the context of all previous government charters, Jefferson’s “self-evident” truths were hardly self-evident. They were unique in the history of statecraft. Never before had government limited or bound itself in such a manner, nor 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. With ambition not unlike the hitherto unprecedented ambition of our first English settlers, in the Declaration of Independence Jefferson gave expression to something altogether new in the annals of history.

For Jefferson, the handmaiden of equality is justice. In his first Inaugural Address, he listed justice foremost among government’s obligations, calling for “Equal and exact justice to all. . ., of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political. . . That should be the creed of our political faith,” he went on to say, “the text of civil instruction, the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.”

The 19th century positivist philosopher August 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. By this view, the rights with which nature itself endows us 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. Looking back on the Declaration of Independence with the entitlement that comes with old age, Jefferson indulged in not a little hyperbole, yet the essence of his memory rings true: “We had no occasion to search into musty records, to hunt up royal parchments, or to investigate the laws and institutions of a semi-barbarous ancestry. We appealed to those of nature, and found them engraved on our hearts.”

Enlightenment philosophers were confident that under the scrutiny of reason, both natural and moral truth would be made self-evident. “Can we suppose less care to be taken in the Order of the Moral than in the natural System?” Ben Franklin asked with rhetorical flourish. No longer do we share the same confidence. Nonetheless, to the extent that the American experiment has proved successful, it has been so because the founders (whether Christian or Deist) believed in a natural order based upon the imperatives of moral law.

Jefferson and his fellow Deists were more responsive to the teachings of science than they were to the teachings of Christian theology. The scientific method of trial and error in fact challenged the dogmatism familiar to religion. Yet, if biased in the direction of science, Jefferson was not ignorant of contemporary theology. Combining the two, he derived his understanding of natural law from Newtonian cosmology and a wide assortment of teachings from the French philosophes and the English and Scottish Enlightenment Schools. Jefferson could well have subscribed, if not to the particulars of Immanuael Kant’s Idealist philosophy, then certainly to the sentiment Kant expressed when he exclaimed, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” Advancing our understanding of nature and nature’s God, Kant also posited “that lordly ideal of a universal kingdom of reasonable individuals . . . to which we can only belong if we relate solicitously to one another according to the maxims of freedom as if they were laws of nature.” To Jefferson, they were laws of nature.

Assuming that the universal truth of reason would soon triumph over centuries of superstition, Jefferson believed that, by the day of his death, every child born in America would be born Unitarian. Once his fellow citizens considered matters a little more carefully, everyone would surely come to the same religious conclusions he himself had. Fortunately, Jefferson was mistaken. A world composed only of Unitarians would be a pallid world indeed. Nonetheless, Jefferson was testifying not to his faith in reason alone, but also to the reasonableness of his faith. To Jefferson it made no earthly difference whether another individual believes in “twenty gods or no God [for] it neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg.” In a world where religion often picks people’s pockets and breaks their legs, Jefferson dedicated himself to limiting this danger. Hence his zealous pursuit of legal protections for freedom of belief.

Looking back on the debates and circumstances leading up to the codification of the American Creed, what detracts more than anything from its moral claim on succeeding generations is how dramatically the founders’ stated ideals were betrayed by their tolerance of slavery. It was not that they were insensitive to the intrinsic worth of human liberty. Even as the Puritans a century and a half earlier had championed their own religious freedom not anybody else’s, the same could be said of the founders with respect to freedom itself. They spoke passionately of liberating the colonies from abject slavery, yet only a few denounced the bondage liberty’s champions themselves imposed. When Washington declared that he would rather the nation be drenched in blood than inhabited by slaves, he was speaking of himself and his fellow plantation owners. Even Franklin spoke of a crown-appointed governor “blackening” and “negrifying” the Pennsylvania Assembly by denying calls for American rights. From England, the literary lion Samuel Johnson posed the obvious question: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

The abiding irony of America is how often the claims of equity have been abridged in practice. Original constitutional guarantees covered neither race nor gender, and for this reason, throughout the nation’s history, claims of justice haunt the boasts of liberty and equality. No one knew this better than Jefferson himself. Reflecting on slavery (where his personal witness is, at best, hypocritical), Jefferson wrote, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

Indicted by his own soaring rhetoric, Jefferson might better be described as schizophrenic than hypocritical on the question of slavery. A slaveholder who on his death (unlike Washington) failed to offer manumission to the great majority of his slaves (including the half-sister of his first wife and mother of his children, Sally Hemmings), Jefferson nonetheless gave every indication that he included blacks in the benefice bestowed on all by nature’s God. In June of 1776, he proposed then-radical language for the Virginia Declaration of Rights that would free from bondage any slave henceforth coming into the country. Reflecting on his failure to win passage for this clause, he wrote, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.” Expressing astonishment that individuals who would do anything to liberate themselves from the bondage of taxation without representation apparently thought nothing of inflicting actual slavery upon another human being, Jefferson–without a hint of self-recognition–mused openly about how “incomprehensible” human nature is. In the Declaration of Independence itself, his fieriest words condemned the king for waging “cruel war against human nature itself” by countenancing the slave trade. Blatantly hypocritical, this passage was cut, to Jefferson’s abiding regret.

When Jefferson dropped the word property from Locke’s familiar list of rights (“life, liberty, and property”), one possible reason redounds to his moral credit. The text that Jefferson appears to have embellished in his preamble to the Declaration was George Mason’s Declaration of Rights for Virginians, adopted the month before: “All men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot by any compact deprive or divest their posterity.” To Mason (who himself opposed slavery), these rights were life, liberty, property, the pursuit of happiness and the ability to secure safety. The condition guaranteeing full rights only to those who had entered “a state of society” was an amendment to Mason’s original draft written to underscore that the declaration expressly excluded slaves (who were not considered members of society) from its compass. Property themselves, slaves were seen as human goods not as humans entitled to full participation in the common good. This demeaning nuance is missing from the Declaration of Independence. By eliminating reference to property from his preamble, Jefferson removed a condition he knew to have been recently imposed to qualify the claims for equal status among all people, slave or free. By so doing he secured the integrity of the American Creed.

Thomas Jefferson’s reputation (and not only among Unitarian Universalists) 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 be wary of not overloading the other side of the scale. Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence have contributed more to the rectitude of our nation than all other utterances combined. It was to this as well as to Jefferson’s brilliance that President John Kennedy was alluding when he quipped in a roomful of Nobel laureates that no more eminent assembly had dined in the White House since Thomas Jefferson had supper there alone. In another toast of sorts, Abraham Lincoln wrote: “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.”

Before I close, let me say a few words about the contemporary relevance of Jefferson’s ideals. 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 it was God who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. America is caricatured through much of the Muslim world as a godless society wedded to materialism and wanton in its exercise of power around the globe. Yet the surest guarantee for world peace remains the American ideal of E pluribus unum as enshrined in the American Creed. By this light, the struggle being waged–one that will continue into the indefinite future–is not, in essence, between God and godlessness, but between competing theological worldviews, with diametrically opposed conceptions of the role faith should play in society to advance the greater good.

When religious believers confront neighbors who hold conflicting beliefs or don’t believe in God at all, short of adopting their neighbor’s views they have only four options. They can attempt to convert, destroy, ignore, or respect those who hold contrasting beliefs. Fundamentalism embraces the first and, in its most radical expression, the second of these four options. It champions conversion but can sponsor destruction as well. Secularism occasionally opts for destruction (witness the crematoria and the gulags) but most widely embraces the third, ignoring religious differences as of negligible importance. The American Creed, charted by our forebears and coded in the nation’s laws, represents the fourth path. In the spirit of liberal democracy, religious pluralism is celebrated. At its best, America witnesses to a deeply held belief in freedom of faith, the rights of conscience, and the worth and dignity of every human being.

Terrorists may hate America as the incarnation of amoral secularism, but this caricature, if justified, is an America watered down by modernist arrogance and post-modernist relativism. American values go far deeper than untrammeled laissez faire capitalism and have nothing to do either with materialism or relativist groundlessness. They rest instead on the firm spiritual foundation on which the nation was established.

In aspiration, to be a moral people is not to be a perfect people. (Otherwise there would be no such thing as morality, perfection stifling every effort to ensure its attainment.) But the founders saw to it that we would hold ourselves to a higher standard. “An almost chosen people,” in Abraham Lincoln’s words, 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 were good.

Such goodness today is under attack, and not only by terrorists. Some argue that, to protect America, civil liberties must be sacrificed. They forget that America enshrines a radically different truth than that espoused by the absolutists who sponsor terror. American union finds its noblest expression in the devotion we render to liberty. The right to dissent must therefore be zealously guarded. Here the American Creed itself is our most persuasive instrument. The best (not to mention most persuasive) way to protect civil liberties is to do so in America’s name. To demonstrate that John Ashcroft’s defense of America is patently unAmerican, we need look no further than the ideals of Thomas Jefferson. As Eleanor Roosevelt, co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights once said: “It is high time that we Americans took a good look at ourselves, . . . remembering how we established a land of freedom and democracy, remembering what we believed in when we did it.”

History instructs us to be wary. From John Adams’s Alien and Sedition Acts to the government’s treatment of Japanese Americans in World War II and McCarthyism during the 1950s, the record suggests that threats to security too often offer license to overturn fundamental human rights. Future historians will list the so-called Patriot’s Act in this same category. The government has an obligation to protect public safety, but we must guard against politically convenient yet otherwise unnecessary abridgment of Constitutional guarantees.

Here, not only American but Unitarian history is instructive. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony cited the American Creed to advance women’s rights. Theodore Parker adduced it to refute slavery. A. Powell Davies lifted it up in his battle against McCartyism. To find our own prophetic voice, I can think of no better instrument. As it has always been, the American Creed remains a sentinel for the peoples’ liberty, but, for it to do its work, we must recapture it from its late captivity, demonstrating a patriotism far loftier than that which would smother American ideals in the American flag. The historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. makes this case succinctly:

When we talk of the American democratic faith, we must understand it in its true dimensions. It is not an impervious, final, and complacent orthodoxy, intolerant of deviation and dissent, fulfilled in flag salutes, oaths of allegiance, and hands over the heart. It is an ever-evolving philosophy, fulfilling its ideals through debate, self-criticism, protest, disrespect, and irreverence; a tradition in which all have rights of heterodoxy and opportunities for self-assertion. The Creed has been the means by which Americans have haltingly but persistently narrowed the gap between performance and principle. It is what all Americans should learn, because it is what binds all Americans together.

Searching through my grandparents’ attic when I was a boy, I found a handsome wooden plaque picturing a soldier in a broad brimmed American World War I helmet and embossed in burnished copper with the words, “My country, right or wrong.” If lifted from its most memorable source, this quote was taken out of context, leaving a misleading impression. What Senator Carl Schurz of Missouri actually said in 1899 was, “My country, right or wrong: if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” That is the essence of true patriotism. That, when guided by the sacred precepts set forth by Thomas Jefferson, fulfills the promise of the American Creed.

https://www.allsoulsnyc.org/publications/sermons/fcsermons/the-american-creed.html

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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