Thursday, July 4, 2019

America's Values: A Fourth of July Meditation

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

These are America's founding values, which we celebrate today. As we understand them now, they do not apply only to men. They affirm that all people have an equal moral worth and have a claim on equal basic rights, and that this moral standing is derived not from any government or law but is an original endowment.

While Jefferson invoked the language of "Nature's God" to describe the Creator of this original endowment--a reference to his Enlightenment Deist philosophy--I understand this Creator in Judeo-Christian terms. Others have different understandings. Jefferson and other founders later affirmed their commitment to this freedom of religion in various ways

But what I want to meditate on here is the idea that equality and basic moral rights precede any government or nation-state. This basic moral standing, enjoyed by all human beings without exception, determines when a law is legitimate and when a government has exceeded its authority. Our country was founded on the idea that the equal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness isn't something we have because we belong to a society that grants this to us. On the contrary, our society is obligated to honor and protect it because we already have it.

We were born with it. We possess it because we are human.

Not because of our race or gender or political party. Not because we are Americans. We have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness because we are human.

That means that we distort or even betray our country's founding values if we hold that they only apply to Americans.

To be an American is to believe that all people everywhere were created equal.

To be an American is to believe that all people everywhere have the inalienable right to life, to liberty, to the pursuit of happiness.

And it is to believe that if any government--including our own--makes laws or pursues policies that violate these rights toward any person, American or otherwise, that government has acted wrongly.

This is why Americans have never been able to get uniformly behind isolationist policies. If these values at the heart of America are about all people and not just Americans, then we should care about what happens to people elsewhere in the world. That doesn't mean we should always intervene. It certainly doesn't mean we must always try to impose our will coercively on other people. But it does mean we have to pay attention to the plight of those outside our borders, care about that plight, and take that into account when making decisions.

This is why Americans have never been able to get uniformly behind the idea that being an American is about blood or birth. By blood and birth, all human beings have the same inalienable rights, whether they were born in Nebraska or Nicaragua or Norway or Nigeria. Being an American is most fundamentally about allegiance to this ideal and commitment to civic participation in a society committed to it. For all its history, despite forces of opposition born from the human tribal impulse, America has continued to welcome new Americans into this noble experiment, this effort to build a country based on values opposed to tribalism.

What all of this means for our immigration policies today is a difficult question that I don't want to try to answer here. Our values must contend with an array of realities, including resource limits, when it comes time to decide specific policies. But some general principles are clear. We must care about those beyond our borders. We must care about those who are not American citizens. And with respect to migrants at our borders, any policy that fails to honor their equal human right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is in violation of our founding values.

All human beings are created equal, not just Americans. All have the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, not just Americans.

To think otherwise is un-American.