This year, given recent events, the celebration of our nation’s birth will likely be a bit more muted than in years past. Revisionist efforts like the 1619 Project are attempting to retell the origins of America as irredeemably corrupt. Civil unrest wants to topple any sentiment or statue with the residue of our racist past. And then there is the precipitating cause to our moment that will be justifiably etched in our memory forever—the death of George Floyd, perhaps the most visceral moment of national disbelief I can recall in my life.
We are in a present search for moral clarity. For some, looking backward to our founding documents may be the last thing some suggest is helpful right now. To me, though, it is right and necessary to better conform ourselves to what was present all along morally and philosophically while acknowledging what was denied in practice, and that is our nation’s tradition of natural rights informed by the natural law tradition.
The Preamble of the Declaration famously reads: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that their Creator endows them with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Such language is the securest anchoring of human rights our world had ever known up to that time. In tragic hypocrisy, the truths that are indeed self-evident—that all humans are created by God and possess equal rights—were not fulfilled: Slavery and other systemic evils cemented themselves. But thinkers like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. each appealed to the spirit of the Declaration to see its truths consistently applied to all citizens. Yes, and amen. The work remains ongoing.
Our national sins are not only those of commission and omission but consistency. While we work to undo the generational impact of racism, we must apply those ideals to all citizens today, particularly to the unborn, where, just this past week, the Supreme Court worked contrary to the Declaration’s ideals by once again entrenching abortion in American law.
Our Constitution failed to deliver on the promises of the Declaration for minorities. It is today, as well, with an issue like the right to life for unborn children. We look back in disbelief at the hypocrisy of our Founding Fathers to ensure such ideals as human dignity and equal rights while so patently contradicting them. We ask ourselves, “How could they not see the inconsistency?” Because human sin—that includes systemic or structural sin—creates moral blind spots.
Even today, with the spirit of social justice afoot like it is, our nation willfully turns its eyes from what is obvious: We classify a group of humans as undeserving of the Declaration’s ideals simply because of their location inside a womb. And so, if justice is to be fulfilled, future generations of Americans will look back in disbelief at our hypocrisy—how we could fight for the equal dignity and rights of those with different skin colors while denying that same equality and dignity to those smaller in size. We persist in our hypocrisy while criticizing the hypocrisy of the past.
This moral solipsism suggests, to me, that the American experiment is one of paradox. While we seek to expose the rotten roots of our nation’s founding, we must be clear-eyed about the failure to apply those same truths today. We deny these rights to a class of citizens for whom majoritarian sentiment robs them of their God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our call is a call to the consistency of our ideals. It worked and is working to achieve justice for African Americans, and so we must continue to pray that it will deliver justice for unborn Americans.
It is not my intention to engage in whataboutism with the point I’m making. An American ethic must be a consistent ethic. We must lay bare the deeply moral question at the heart of America’s public philosophy: Will we be consistent in whom we ascribe those deserving of the Declaration’s ideals?
Let’s mark this July 4 with moral vision, and those in the future with moral consistency. Perhaps join me in what I hope to be a new annual tradition, re-reading the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.