What a crazy assignment.
The more work on it, the more we see how both China and America are facing two astonishingly important — and yet, simple — story questions:
Which story are we in?
Who are we, here in the story?
And since our assignment means our team has to consider the possibility that Christianity is the story we are in, we are now going to explore that second question — Who are we, here in the story? — in relation to the story of America.
Because it sure looks like America’s story began with some kind of consensus which our team is now calling…
The Identity Fountain of Freedom
You know what our version of the story says about who we are, here in the story.
We are just some conscious combination of atoms, animals, and dust in the wind. No ultimate value. No ultimate meaning.
But who did America’s Founders believe we are?
It’s clear the American Founders believed we are created beings.
But in the language of the Declaration of Independence, what makes us different from the other created beings on the planet?
We can get a pretty good clue from their use of the term “unalienable rights.”
It appears the American Founders believed the idea of unalienable rights was connected to what they believed was our foundational identity as human beings.
Consider how the identity connection was made by one of America’s founders, Alexander Hamilton, in the year before the Declaration of Independence was written…
The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.Alexander Hamilton, The Farmer Refuted, 1775
While there were certainly exceptions among them, America’s founders in general embraced the Judeo-Christian belief about foundational human identity, that we are all made in image and likeness of God.
And it means unalienable rights flow from our very identity.
In other words, rights come with the person.
They aren’t an abstraction. They are very personal.
And it looks like many of the Founders took the unalienable rights very personally.
Paula Wong found something related to this from a United States Supreme Court decision way back in 1793. It’s written by one of America’s most notable early jurists, Justice James Wilson.
In this excerpt, he points out how this view of who we are, here in the story we are in, became the ground for American government and law.
And notice how he elevates the individual above the state…
Man, fearfully and wonderfully made, is the workmanship of his all perfect Creator. A state, useful and valuable as the contrivance is, is the inferior contrivance of man, and from his native dignity derives all its acquired importance.
The law, says Sir William Blackstone, ascribes to the King the attribute of sovereignty; he is sovereign and independent within his own dominions, and owes no kind of objection to any other potentate upon earth. Hence it is that no suit or action can be brought against the King, even in civil matters, because no court can have jurisdiction over him, for all jurisdiction implies superiority of power.
This last position is only a branch of a much more extensive principle, on which a plan of systematic despotism has been lately formed in England, and prosecuted with unwearied assiduity and care. Of this plan, the author of the Commentaries was, if not the introducer, at least the great supporter. He has been followed in it by writers later and less known, and his doctrines have, both on the other and this side of the Atlantic, been implicitly and generally received by those who neither examined their principles nor their consequences. The principle is that all human law must be prescribed by a superior. This principle I mean not now to examine. Suffice it at present to say that another principle, very different in its nature and operations, forms, in my judgment, the basis of sound and genuine jurisprudence; laws derived from the pure source of equality and justice must be founded on the CONSENT of those whose obedience they require. The sovereign, when traced to his source, must be found in the man.
In the United states, and in the several states, which compose the Union, we go not so far, but still we go one step farther than we ought to go in this unnatural and inverted order of things. The states, rather than the people, for whose sakes the states exist, are frequently the objects which attract and arrest our principal attention. This, I believe, has produced much of the confusion and perplexity which have appeared in several proceedings and several publications on state politics, and on the politics, too, of the United states. Sentiments and expressions of this inaccurate kind prevail in our common, even in our convivial, language. Is a toast asked? “The United states,” instead of the “People of the United states,” is the toast given. This is not politically correct. The toast is meant to present to view the first great object in the Union: it presents only the second. It presents only the artificial person, instead of the natural persons who spoke it into existence. A state I cheerfully fully admit, is the noblest work of Man. But, Man himself, free and honest, is, I speak as to this world, the noblest work of God.
Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 419 (1793), by Justice James Wilson, Separate Opinion
So, can you imagine the anger James Wilson would have for current Americans and their failure to understand something so basic about America?
And his anger would flow directly from his understanding of the Christian answer to the simple but profoundly powerful story question…
Who are we, here in the story?
As Mark David Hall comments…
Clearly, Wilson was influenced by a Christian conception of natural law, and his theory of natural rights is best understood in light of this tradition. Notably, his expansive view of the right to life was shaped by his conviction that humans are created in God’s image, and his view of an individual’s right to liberty is constrained by moral law.Justice, Law, and the Creation of the American Republic: The Forgotten Legacy of James Wilson, by Mark David Hall, The Heritage Foundation, June 1, 2009
And look at this …
The important Christian principle incorporated into the American political order is that God did not create the state in His image, He created man in His image. Nor is man created in the image of the state. It is the individual, not the state, not even society as a whole, that is of primary importance to God, according to the Bible.
And here is one of the best explanations of all this …
A right that is unalienable is one that cannot be alienated—that is, it can be neither taken away nor given away, neither stolen nor surrendered. But I can of course give away all I own. So this must mean that our unalienable rights are not really ours, all the way down, as it were. We do not own them. We do not really own ourselves. And when we consider where these rights come from, in the Declaration’s account, this is not so surprising. We are “endowed by [our] Creator” with them. He gave them to us in such a way that they are part of us, and we cannot part with them. The source of our rights is something—or rather, Someone—to which, not for which, we are responsible.NATURAL RIGHTS, THE IMAGO DEI, AND THE MORAL ECONOMY OF SEX, by Matthew J. Franck, First Things, February 24, 2015
And look at something else we found which helps us see how the question, “Who are we, here in the story?”, ties all this more closely together…
Our passages from Aristotle and Samuel thus stand duty for two radically different notions of the political order — differences that would recur, with amazing regularity, throughout the course of Western history. From the pagan view of the pervasive power of the state, and its magical or god-like rulers confronting a mass of men perceived as lesser being, there arose a highly repressive form of government, and a theory to back it up. In essence, this theory said the state and its rulers were the source of all authority, because they were its linkages to the deities in nature. It is this view that provides us with the lex regia of the Romans, and all its many variations. “The king is the law speaking” because he is in communion with divinity, as ordinary men are not; his rule is the price that men must pay for harmony with the gods, and for order in the state.
M. Stanton Evans, The Theme Is Freedom
From a biblical standpoint, conferring such total power on a ruler or body of men, and the reasons given for it, are equally repugnant. No human being can be treated as divine, or above the law, or entitled to make his will the rule of society’s existence. Nor can the people over whom the rulers wield their power be treated as a herd of atomistic beings, animals, or objects; they are persons created in God’s image, possessed of dignity and reason, and capable of living out their earthly lives in a regime of liberty. Such was the foundation of our political culture, and the provenance of our freedom.
Oh, and here is a sermon given by a pastor in the year 1787, the year of the Constitutional Convention. This sermon illustrates how their belief that our foundational identity is as persons made in the image and likeness was embraced by so many of the Americans at that point in their unfolding story…
Agreeably therefore to the spirit and intention of the text, the subject which now properly lies before us, is the dignity of man. And, I hope, the observations which shall be made upon this subject, will do honour to our nature in one view, and pour contempt upon it in another, and so lead us all into a clear and just apprehension of ourselves, which is the most useful, as well as the most rare and high attainment in knowledge.
The dignity of man appears from his bearing the image of his Maker. After God had created the heavens and the earth, and furnished the world with a rich profusion of vegetive and sensitive natures, he was pleased to form a more noble and intelligent creature, to bear his image, and to be the lord of this lower creation. “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” This allows us to say, that man is the offspring of God, a ray from the fountain of light, a drop from the ocean of intelligence. Though, man, since the fall, comes into the world destitute of the moral image of God, yet, in the very frame and constitution of his nature, he still bears the natural image of his Maker. His soul is a transcript of the natural perfections of the Deity. God is a spirit, and so is the soul of man; God is intelligence and activity, and so is the soul of man. In a word, man is the living image of the living God, in whom is displayed more of the divine nature and glory, than in all the works and creatures of God upon earth. Agreeably therefore to the dignity of his nature, God hath placed him at the head of the world, and given him the dominion over all his works. Hence says the Psalmist, “Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet: all sheep and oxen, yea the beasts of the field; the fowls of the air; and the fish of the sea.” How wide is the kingdom of man! how numerous his subjects! how great his dignity!
God has, besides, instamped a dignity upon man by giving him not only a rational, but an immortal existence. The soul, which is properly the man, shall survive the body and live forever. This might be argued from the nature, the capacity, and the desires of the human mind, and from the authority of the wiser heathens, who have generally supposed the soul to be a spiritual and immortal principle in man. But, since the heathen moralists might derive their opinion from a higher source than the light of nature, and since every created object necessarily and solely depends, for continued existence, upon the will of the Creator; we choose to rest the evidence of this point upon the authority of the sacred oracles. Here indeed we find the immortality of the soul sufficiently established. Solomon saith, “Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?” And, in another place, after describing the frailty and mortality of the body, he adds, “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was, and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.” Agreeably to this, our Lord declares that men are able to kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul. And God has told us that he will, at the last day, separate the righteous from the wicked, and fix the latter in a miserable, but the former in a blessed immortality. Hence immortality appears to be the common property and dignity of the human kind.
The Dignity of Man, Nathanael Emmons, Providence, Rhode Island, 1787Online Library of Liberty – Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era. Vol. 1 (1730-1788)
And look at this, from your G.K. Chesterton guy…
America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just. It certainly does condemn anarchism, and it does also by inference condemn atheism, since it clearly names the Creator as the ultimate authority from whom these equal rights are derived. Nobody expects a modern political system to proceed logically in the application of such dogmas, and in the matter of God and Government it is naturally God whose claim is taken more lightly. The point is that there is a creed, if not about divine, at least about human things.
If there are no rights of men, what are the rights of nations? Perhaps a nation has no claim to self-government. Perhaps it has no claim to good government. Perhaps it has no claim to any sort of government or any sort of independence. Perhaps they will say that is not implied in the Declaration of Independence. But without going deep into my reasons for believing in natural rights, or rather in supernatural rights (and Jefferson certainly states them as supernatural), I am content here to note that a man’s treatment of his own body, in relation to traditional and ordinary opportunities for bodily excess, is as near to his self-respect as social coercion can possibly go; and that when that is gone there is nothing left. If coercion applies to that, it applies to everything; and in the future of this controversy it obviously will apply to everything.
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.G.K. Chesterton, What I Saw In America
And it looks like seeing God as the Active Protagonist in the story of humanity appears to have deeply influenced the Quest which America’s Founders were pursuing.
You can even get a sense for it from your guy Gingrich…
They endured because they believed in a set of ideals enshrined in a document written by their fellow citizens, a declaration proclaiming that rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are unalienable, that we are endowed with those rights by our Creator, and that all men are created equal, as we are all made in His image.
That was worth fighting for, suffering for, and dying for. That is what made Americans unique in human history and made America, from its inception, a nation like no other.
And never before had a nation been brought forth that was dedicated first and foremost to identifying the source and nature of the individual’s rights and defending those rights, and only secondarily to defining the scope of governmental power — and then only in relation to, and limited by, the individual’s unalienable rights.”Newt Gingrich, A Nation Like No Other
According to the Founders, our unalienable right to our lives and our unalienable right to our liberty cannot rightfully be transferred or taken from us, because those rights are inherent to us as human beings, part of what it means to be a rational being and a moral agent.Defending the Founders and the (American) Enlightenment, By Robert Curry, The American Thinker, August 3, 2017
And as you’ll see, what Curry wrote there is deeply connected to the core value of the story in America.
So, here is some more material Paula showed us related to the simple story question, Who Are We, Here in the Story?, and the power of identity…
[N]o matter what one thinks about the wisdom of the American Founders or where one stands on the great moral issues of our time, the position one embraces will ultimately depend on what one believes is true about philosophical anthropology. Or, as the old textbooks would put it, how one answers the question, “What is man?”The Question Behind Our Political Divisions, by Francis Beckwith, November 11, 2011
If our republic is to survive, we must relearn to trust one another as fellow citizens instead of as servants of the state. But in order to trust one another, we must first know who we are.Who Do You Think You Are? Identity in the Twenty-First Century, by Joshua Bowman, Public Discourse, March 28, 2018
We are neither unum nor pluribus, but e pluribus unum — a diverse people held in tension by a common creed. And what is that creed? It is a belief in the inherent dignity of every human being enshrined in principles of freedom, equality, and justice.Conservatism in the Age of Millennials, By Michael Hendrix, Real Clear Policy, July 24, 2018
For Lincoln, this inclusive project of enabling all truly to possess these basic rights and liberties meant that governments should help provide what we would today describe as infrastructure — systems of transportation and communication — and also education and aid to the poor, as well as systems for law enforcement and self-governance. Lincoln saw these systems as necessary if people were really to pursue happiness, as opposed to just struggling to survive. Americans have long disagreed on the roles governments should play in achieving these goals — but most share the goals. Lincoln also recognized that in light of economic, regional, religious, and other forms of diversity, the pursuits of happiness of different Americans would take different forms. Within limits, he thought those forms should be accommodated. Again, Americans have long disagreed on the precise limits, but most share these goals. By hearing each other’s stories of who they are and who they want to be, they might discover they in fact share more than they now believe.To Secure the Blessings of Liberty: Sharing Stories of American Civic Purposes, by ROGERS SMITH, Law & Liberty, APRIL 3, 2018
The reason, Taylor says, is that I do not identify only with my particular (e.g., religious) community. I also identify with my country — a larger political community in which the people, and not some ruler or group of rulers, is sovereign. That is to say, I identity as a citizen of a democracy. This second-order identification binds me to my fellow citizens, despite our disagreements and differences. If it did not, I would not accept the legitimacy of the majority’s decision, much less understand my own situation as free in any meaningful sense. I wouldn’t seek recourse through the ballot box but through violence.
In other words, democracies depend on the idea of a sovereign citizenry. In a premodern form of government, says Taylor, what binds me to my fellow countrymen, in the political realm at least, is only that we are subject to the same ruler. By contrast, in a democracy, we share a political identity: the “people.” But this raises the question of that people’s identity. It is no surprise, Taylor thinks, that, historically, the rise of democracies coincided with the rise of nationalisms —linguistic, religious, ethnic, or other — because these are attempts to grapple with the problem of political identity.
Whence the danger — or dilemma — of democracy: the identity of “the people” has the potential to exclude. In the extreme, minority groups no longer recognize the legitimacy of majority rule, resulting in schism or civil war.Democracy’s Dilemma, By M. Anthony Mills, Real Clear Policy, July 27, 2018
So, when you look through the lens of story, America’s story shines a spotlight on that simple story question…
Who are we, here in the story?
And you know this is a problem for the Party, because our version of the story says we are nothing more than this song, which Paula showed our team…
Dust in the Wind. Wow. The Party can’t be singing that song to the people of China.
And that’s why our China Dream is a brilliant story strategy. It shifts the focus away from the intrinsic meaninglessness of the story we say we are in.