Rediscovering America: Liberty, Equality, and the Crisis of Democracy
by john agresto
asahina & wallace, 236 pages, $16.00
In what sense are all men created equal? America’s Declaration of Independence calls it a self-evident truth. But to look around the world, nothing could seem to be less the case, empirically speaking. Some of us are born to wealthy parents, others into poverty; some of us with 170 IQs, others a little slow on the uptake. The genetic lottery, as some call it, does not distribute prizes equally. What, then, led Jefferson (no less aware of this reality than we moderns) to make such a bold claim and why do Americans, by and large, nod along when they hear his words?
John Agresto, a past president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe and former head of the American University of Iraq, is among those of us who nod along. And, yet, he argues in this latest book that many Americans today affirm the notion of human equality under false meanings—misunderstanding the true nature of equality and what Jefferson actually meant. Agresto’s book, then, is born in part of a desire to reacquaint his audience (whom he assumes are mostly “conservatives”) with this older, truer understanding of equality, which places him at odds with two major camps on today’s political scene: liberals and libertarians.
Liberals (at least those not ready to write off the founders as irrelevant, irredeemable sexists and racists) make the mistake of defining “equality” as the promise of government to level out social outcomes (e.g. education and income). “To our Founders,” writes Agresto, “justice and ‘fairness’ lay not in distributing the goods and benefits of society to all people equally.” Citing the Constitution in his support, Agresto reminds us that rights come first—before government—which exists, he says, to secure rights and to protect the exercise of our rights, not to supply them. Jefferson was no Rawlsian.
Libertarians, on the other end of things, get “equality” wrong by thinking that it refers to (and that Jefferson was referring to) the notion that all humans are equal by virtue of us all possessing absolute rights (the right to private property ranking high on that list). Our founders, says Agresto, never believed this and never considered democracy an end in itself, which explains why they were so antsy about the possibility of there being too much of it. Jefferson was no libertarian.
In precisely what sense, then, did the founding fathers believe that all men are created equal and in what sense should we affirm this belief, a seemingly essential ingredient for the democratic fabric of our society? Here the reader may find himself agreeing with Agresto . . . but not without lingering questions. In various places, Agresto describes this equality in rather un-spelled out deistic terms as one of “life lived under the commands of the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” As both a practicing Roman Catholic and a romantic about the greatness of the American experiment, Agresto thinks that Jefferson tapped into a deep truth recognizable and appealing to people across religious and cultural traditions.
This thought serves as a thread connecting Agresto’s reflections on the founding documents of America with his continued reflections on his experiences in the Middle East (previously explored in his book Mugged By Reality), which accounts for the remainder of the book’s content.
Outside the West, it is commonplace to regard other nations as always, always acting purely in their own self-interests in their foreign policy decisions (despite what they may say about their intentions) but Americans, says Agresto, really do pay taxes and in some cases even risk their own necks to help those less fortunate abroad, whether battling AIDS in Africa or overthrowing tyrants in the Middle East, motivated by the belief (naive or not, it doesn’t matter) that they are making the world a better place. Agresto wants us to share his amazement—to never overlook the unprecedented quality of this fact in world history—that America has somehow, someway managed to produce people who believe and act in such a way, whatever else the many, many shortcomings of our nation.
But just how does America do it? “Some of this love of neighbor is traceable to more than 2,000 years of religious teachings. But concern for our neighbor goes beyond reliance on our religious heritage. Most of our fellow citizens who profess no religion themselves are fully respectful, tolerant, and charitable to their neighbors. And this is surely because of what we know not just from our religious creed but from our American creed.” Many of us may want to believe Agresto here, while still wondering (worrying?) about just how long this goodwill can sustain itself without a strong basis in religious creed.
Indeed, Agresto himself is alarmed at the crassness of much of American culture today, noting that the move to see “equality” in terms of absolute rights (the libertarian option mentioned above) is partially to blame insofar as it teaches us to see freedoms as rights to licentiousness. During his time in Iraq, Agresto met with Iraqis who, sadly, had come to see the freedoms granted by American-style democracy in just this way. If the liberty Americans cherish and want to help others achieve ends in broken families and drug abuse, “Why,” the average Iraqi is right to ask, “should we want it here?” More, those Muslims who believe that obeying God’s decrees can determine whether their tribe or nation receives God’s blessings or His wrath are, from their standpoint, quite reasonable in withholding liberties that could cause them all to suffer. Improved moral character on the part of western democracy’s citizenry would surely make for better advertising here. This would seem to be Agresto’s preferred solution.
There is, though, another possible reason religiously devout Americans—no less appalled by western decadence than many Iraqis—want to nevertheless preserve the rights of the blasphemer, but it remains an open question whether it’s a reason available to Agresto’s Iraqi friends as well. Pope Benedict’s Regensburg lecture dared to compare the relationship between faith and reason in Islam and Christianity, recalling a 14th-century exchange on the subject between Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a learned Persian. Paleologus, trying to explain why spreading faith though coercion is unreasonable, wrote, “Faith is born of the soul, not the body.” Agresto, like many of us, presumably wants to believe that Paleologus wasn’t describing true Islam; that the American Declaration of Independence and Jefferson’s words, properly understood and lived out, can function for pious Muslims the way they have for pious Christians and for non-believers. Take away the publishing freedoms of the religious skeptic and you’ve not only acted contrary to “the commands of the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” you’ve also done nothing to move the skeptic closer to becoming a person of faith, for faith, like love of God and neighbor, is born of the soul or not at all.
Rediscovering America is the sort of book we don’t have nearly enough of today: reflections on the issues that matter most, in a style at once intellectual and informed by experiences on-the-ground, from an author unafraid of being politically incorrect or of disagreeing with fellow conservatives where honesty requires it.
John Rose is a Ph.D candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary.
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