Happy Fourth of July, from G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton wishes you a Happy Fourth of July with this message…

The Declaration of Independence dogmatically bases all rights on the fact that God created all men equal; and it is right; for if they were not created equal, they were certainly evolved unequal. There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • Gaith

    Third comment, so I’ll some up. :)

    Persiflage, in you first paragraph, you repeat Chesterton’s assertion without any reasoning for why it might be true. By that reasoning, moreover, the world’s most secular countries should also have the highest crime rates. Huh… those would be Europe, which don’t.

    “The U.S. Constitution was written assuming the propositions in the Declaration to be true.” Okay, I goofed on slavery in the Declaration, but the initial Constitution forbade the outlawing of the slave trade for the next 20 years or so, and allowed for slaves to be counted as 3/5s of people for the sake of electoral apportionment. So I can’t agree with your statement.

    There happens to be a philosophical/political document both more humane and more secular than the Declaration, if not quite as poetic. It’s the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and certain of its fundamental concepts, such as the equality of the sexes, would have struck the Founders as absurd.

  • http://persiflagethis.blogspot.com/ Persiflage

    Gaith,

    Chesterton (along with Jefferson) is speaking of natural law, and that’s of the sort that the founders who wrote the Declaration believed in, and some might say, just happens to be what fundamental American principles are based upon. Whether one chalks up political equality to an absolute origin or to a changing and evolving origin actually determines whether one’s ideas of equality are defensible or simply end up like the animals in Orwell’s Animal Farm.

    The Declaration happens to mention a Creator because it was discussing the philosophical idea that the natural inalienable rights of man are something that belong to every human being at birth (in other words, your rights are NOT given to you by a government or a document). The Constitution does not happen to mention a Creator because it was a document specifically designed to delegate certain powers (originating in the people) to different branches of government. But the U.S. Constitution was written assuming the propositions in the Declaration to be true.

  • Gaith

    The same Shea, in the above link, all but sneers at Sweden, a peaceful nation of highly educated, healthy and happy people, and calls India the world’s most religious country, without explaining why that title oughn’t go to Saudi Arabia, Iran or North Korea (which is, in nearly if not every sense of the word, a theocracy). He also gives Christianity full credit for the tradition of increasingly secularized democracy, without mentioning that the God of the Bible promotes monarchism many times over, but never (so far as I know; I’d be fascinated to be proved wrong) endorses self-government in any form whatsoever.

    “Muddy thinking”, indeed. But the heart of this particular debate is whether theology and morality are inextricably intertwined. Shea’s and Chesterton’s views seem clear, but allow me to quote an NYT article by Steven Pinker:

    Here is the worry. The scientific outlook has taught us that some parts of our subjective experience are products of our biological makeup and have no objective counterpart in the world. The qualitative difference between red and green, the tastiness of fruit and foulness of carrion, the scariness of heights and prettiness of flowers are design features of our common nervous system, and if our species had evolved in a different ecosystem or if we were missing a few genes, our reactions could go the other way. Now, if the distinction between right and wrong is also a product of brain wiring, why should we believe it is any more real than the distinction between red and green? And if it is just a collective hallucination, how could we argue that evils like genocide and slavery are wrong for everyone, rather than just distasteful to us?

    Putting God in charge of morality is one way to solve the problem, of course, but Plato made short work of it 2,400 years ago. Does God have a good reason for designating certain acts as moral and others as immoral? If not — if his dictates are divine whims — why should we take them seriously? Suppose that God commanded us to torture a child. Would that make it all right, or would some other standard give us reasons to resist? And if, on the other hand, God was forced by moral reasons to issue some dictates and not others — if a command to torture a child was never an option — then why not appeal to those reasons directly?

    This throws us back to wondering where those reasons could come from, if they are more than just figments of our brains. They certainly aren’t in the physical world like wavelength or mass. The only other option is that moral truths exist in some abstract Platonic realm [...] Perhaps we are born with [an evolutionarily-produced] rudimentary moral sense, and as soon as we build on it with moral reasoning, the nature of moral reality forces us to some conclusions but not others.

    [end quote]

    I highly recommend the whole piece. The notion that morality can develop and flourish without a third-party infusion of theism is, to quote Pinker once more, “not crazy.”

  • http://www.lookingcloser.org closerlooker

    A response from Mark Shea:

    “Chesterton is, of course, perfectly right and the people who are calling him a racist are fools who don’t get that he was the enemy of the racial theories which, in the 20s, were appealing to Darwin and looking forward to Hitler.

    “Here’s his take (1923) on the looniness of the then red-hot latest theory of Aryan progenitors of the Nordic Superman which was to be funny right up until it became state policy under National Socialism. http://www.wikilivres.info/wiki/The_Thing/23. Chesterton has great respect for peoples and ethnic and national groupings because he believes in things like families and the home. He has nothing but contempt for the notion of a Master Race. He believes in patriotism, but despises nationalism. For the former is a species of love, while the latter is a species of Pride.

    “Here’s my own take on the purely mystical notion of equality: http://www.mark-shea.com/HE36_f.html People who think you can derive it from an atheistic materialist worldview are simply muddy thinkers.”

  • Corey

    lol you’re a bit hasty in your reply. Be quick to listen and slow to speak, equality before God doesn’t mean equality as in physical equality. As for the word evolve, here he doesn’t mean physical evolution but the progress by which modern society have psychically made people unequal before God ( i.e. that blacks aren’t in the image of God). Also he goes on to say that the hypocrisy of America and how it’s unwilling to follow it’s own statement. So out of context it maybe misunderstood, equality here is not equality of physical talents but the equality of the image of God in all man kind, equality.

  • Gaith

    Oops, the Declaration doesn’t mention slavery. My mistake.

  • Gaith

    But all men are clearly not “created equal”. Some, especially today, are born and (with medical technologies undreamed of in Mr. Jefferson’s time) survive with the most debilitating mental and physical handicaps, whereas some are born with capacities for unusual brilliance or exceptional longevity. Whether one chalks this objective inequality up to evolution, a deity or some combination of the two is another, private matter.

    We are therefore left with the Declaration’s philosophical proposition that, regardless of intelligence, health or parentage, all Men should be considered equal before the Law. Contrary to Mr. Chesterton’s assertion, it is perfectly possible to wholeheartedly embrace this notion without any grounding in “foreign aid”, as Mr. Hamilton phrased it.

    Regardless, the Declaration of Independence was not a “basis for democracy”; particularly since it explicitly supported human trafficking. The US Constitution was such a basis, and – Mr. Chesterton wrong again – contains no mention of any deity apart from a rhetorical flourish concerning the year of its authorship.

    N.B. “Constitution Day” is celebrated every September 17.


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