A Catholic View - ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’ — but are they?

Our country is coasting on the fumes of a mystical Christian faith in equality

By Mark Shea

Mark Shea

Every July, Americans hold the secular feast of St. Thomas Jefferson and take a little time out to renew their baptismal vows of citizenship in the American Experiment. As part of that rite, Americans take a small amount of time (between the sacred meals of fried chicken and spare ribs and the lighting of the sacred fireworks) to contemplate the American creed summed up in the Declaration of Independence.

Some readers may think I am being sacrilegious by speaking of the Fourth of July in religious terms, but I’m not. G.K. Chesterton (no blasphemer he) once remarked that America was “a nation with the soul of a church” and said that it was the only country founded on a creed. I think he is dead on. Americans always act as though they felt they were a City on a Hill, just as much as the Puritans did, even when they are pursuing the destruction of all that is holy. Our itch to export our way of life is every bit as missionary as the apostles’, even when what is being exported is Microsoft, Lady Gaga and the dream of a new Starbucks shop every half mile along every stretch of road from here to Timbuktu.

 Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence. Photo: Public Domain

A nation of hard-nosed empiricists?
The sociologist Peter Berger once remarked that if India is the most religious country in the world and Sweden is the most secularized, then America is a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes. I think this is exactly right (and that it is the faith of the vast “Indian” population of America that keeps us in such sanity as we still possess). For to put it bluntly, our Ruling Class, in their love of Mammon and Venus, wish that God were dead, and they pursue the agenda of killing him with missionary zeal.

To that end, they hire court prophets like Richard Dawkins and give them a free forum on the media to mock anything that cannot be accounted for by science and materialistic philosophy. So we are taught to reject Christianity as “mystical” and fancy ourselves hard-nosed empiricists.

Yet at the same time, our culture still retains enough of the old Christian tradition to talk about something called “equality.” This time of year, in particular, it points us to the founding documents of the nation and intones, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Our national, mystical faith
Now, honestly. Take a good hard look at that statement. What is it but a piece of pure, unadulterated Christian mysticism, as unverifiable by scientific experiment as the resurrection of Jesus Christ? What could be less self-evident (empirically speaking) than that “all men are created equal”? To the naked eye, people are vastly different: smarter, dumber, faster, slower, stronger and weaker than one another. And yet, by a sort of inertia, our culture goes on talking about “equality” as though it were something you could see and measure with a scale or an electroencephalogram.

No one (yet) has alerted Americans to the fact that we are in fact mouthing a piece of utterly mystical Christian doctrine as rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition (and in nothing else) as the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. No one has pointed out to us that when we confess “all men are created equal” we mean, and can only mean, that all people are equally precious to God and are creatures made in his image.

So far, we have coasted along on custom in continuing to talk as though our culture still is founded on that mystical Christian faith in human equality. I fear, however, that sooner or later, it will occur to somebody to get rid of this mystical Christian belief in equality as they have gotten rid of so much of the rest of the Christian tradition.

Either that, or we will have to repent of getting rid of the Christian tradition.

But we can’t coast forever. 

Mark Shea is a member of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Seattle. His blog “Catholic and Enjoying It!” is at www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea.

NORTHWEST CATHOLIC - July/August 2014

Mark Shea

Mark Shea is a member of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Seattle. His website is www.mark-shea.com

Website: www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea