Recently I had a discussion with someone close to me regarding the U.S. founding. Her position was that the Founding Fathers introduced political ideas that were new and had never been tried before, for example that all men are created equal and that our rights come from our Creator. I’m suspicious of the idea of rights being given by God, yet remaining undiscovered by Christ’s Church for over 1,700 years.
Therefore I disputed whether these were really new ideas. Depending on what you mean by “equal”, I think it can be argued that “all men are created equal” is an old idea. But what do we mean by “equal”? Obviously we’re not all equal in terms of height, weight, strength and various talents. We’re not equal in terms of our individual traits. What we’re equal in is our nature: we’re all human beings. As such, we’re equally obliged to obey God’s commands. We’re obliged not to steal from each other, lie to each other, kill each other, be unfaithful to each other, etc.
“When it is a matter of the moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. It makes no difference whether one is the master of the world or the ‘poorest of the poor’ on the face of the earth. Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal.”
Pope St. John Paul II, Veritatis splendor, 96.
The flip side of these obligations is that we have a right not to be stolen from, lied to, killed, etc., on the basis of our human nature. Thus, we have always had rights that were given by God. “By protecting the inviolable personal dignity of every human being [universal moral norms] help to preserve the human social fabric and its proper and fruitful development.” VS 97.
The Declaration of Independence speaks of the rights with which we are endowed by our Creator as including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Obviously life is a right deriving from the commandment to not kill. What about liberty and the pursuit of happiness? The problem with “liberty” is that it has now been interpreted to mean that each of us can define for himself what is right and wrong; what is true or false; and indeed what each of us is in his essence. But if truth isn’t objective, liberty can’t survive:
“Totalitarianism arises out of a denial of truth in the objective sense. If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. . . . If one does not acknowledge transcendent truth, then the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others. People are then respected only to the extent that they can be exploited for selfish ends. Thus, the root of modern totalitarianism is to be found in the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his very nature the subject of rights which no one may violate, no individual, group, class, nation or State.”
Pope St. John Paul II, Centesimus annus, 44.
The mistake of the Founders, then, is not codifying objective truth or any way in which objective truth might be determined and imposed. This is thought to be their great breakthrough, but it’s actually their major flaw. The universal moral norms which make us all equal collapse without objective truth. If there’s no established religion, if there’s a “wall” between church and state, then there’s equally a wall between objective truth and civil law, which means rights and equality have nothing on which to stand:
“The Church’s firmness in defending the universal and unchanging moral norms is not demeaning at all. Its only purpose is to serve man’s true freedom. Because there can be no freedom apart from or in opposition to the truth, the categorical–unyielding and uncompromising–defense of the absolutely essential demands of man’s personal dignity must be considered the way and the condition for the very existence of freedom. . . . These norms in fact represent the unshakable foundation and solid guarantee of a just and peaceful human coexistence, and hence of genuine democracy, which can come into being and develop only on the basis of the equality of all its members, who possess common rights and duties.” VS 96.