How to Read the Declaration of Independence on Equality in Today’s World

By Merrill Ring

The Declaration talks of our equality as derived from a Creator.  How can that make sense in the secular framework established by the Constitution?

Very often progressives appeal to the Declaration of Independence in support of the idea that one of our nation’s fundamental principles is that of equality.  There are, however, problems with pointing to that document to show that this country is founded on the aim of achieving equality.  I do not mean the problems caused by the fact that not all people were treated equally at the time:  slavery (most importantly) and the consequent self-deception about it are not the issues I have in mind.

The Declaration of Independence says “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, including the right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness…”

It is quite clear that “created equal” was meant to say that the equality in status is given to everyone by “their Creator” and the Creator is to be understood as a divine being, a God.

The problem is this:  the Constitution established this country as secular and the Bill of Rights gave everyone a legal freedom from religion as well as a legal freedom of religion.  And despite the fact that an individual’s freedom from religion is not yet accomplished in American practice, i.e. we have not achieved the full legal secularization the Constitution calls for, in terms of fundamental law this is a secular country.  

How can a secular America make use of the equality talk in the Declaration given that it is expressed in religious language?  How can its talk of equality be made relevant today when it was originally given a religious backing?

It can be done.  The Declaration does not have to be thrown on the trash-heap of history because what it says about equality was originally expressed by reference to a Creator God, a maneuver not later employed in the Constitution.

In today’s secular terms, the Declaration is stating that in our laws and practices this country starts from a presumption of equality with the implication that divergences from equal status are what must be justified.  America’s fundamental commitment is to treat all human beings as having an initial equal moral standing.

The reference to morality means that certain inequalities are irrelevant to the aim of the Declaration and to our political lives:  that we are not all equally good shortstops or mathematicians does not count as a criticism of the announced principle.  It is only in case of morality, especially political/social morality, that the claim applies.

Contrary to the Declaration, this updating of what it says about equality is not to be treated as a truth:  what we have in the Declaration is the expression of a commitment, not something that is either true or false. It has a different logical standing:  this is how we are to regard people, namely as having equal status in our laws, policies and practices.  And because it is not a truth, it is not self-evident: it is an announcement about how we are to proceed in our thinking and our actions.

The principle does not commit us to holding that people deserve the same moral standing no matter what they do.  What people do can justify their losing the equal moral status with which they are endowed by our initial commitment to equality.  That is, again, loss of equal status can be justified at least by what people make of their lives, by what they do and what they do not do.

However, what about the Creator language?  It is very important that we today explicitly recognize that the Declaration was written at a time and place where that kind of reference was normal, in order to contrast ourselves with those who hero-worship the Founding generation.  Unlike those who talk as if what the Founders said and thought are good for eternity, we progressives must hold publically that time passes, that some modes of talk and thought have changed in the course of our history.  For instance, the Founders’ ideas of the American economy do not begin to make sense in today’s world.  

So too their idea of how to express an American commitment to equality – in terms of a Creator and self-evident truths - is a reflection of the time and place of this country’s founding and is not binding on us today.  We have a different way of talking of such matters. It is the commitment to equality as a fundamental feature of our political lives that survives.

Note:  the view expressed here clearly is a rejection of the doctrine of originalism found in debates about the Constitution.  The original way of expressing the country’s commitment to equality is of a different time and place and is not determinative of how we should understand the Declaration today.