The Declaration of Independence: ‘Systemically Racist’?

As inspiring as it is, the Declaration was a very human document

The greatest ideal animating the American experiment is here: the notion of equality by creation. In other words, whatever our social standing, we all stand equal before God as created beings. Earlier statements like the Virginia Declaration of Rights had spoken more vaguely of people as being “by nature” equal, but here Jefferson and his committee put a finer point on the action of God in creation, and in the endowment of rights.

 

Mark Charles, a speaker at last weekend’s Justice Conference, called the Declaration of Independence “systemically racist.” (The Justice Conference describes itself as an event “for Christ-followers to gather, engage with, and better understand how to address major justice issues.”) This prompted a reply from the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Mark Tooley, who chastised Charles for “smugly denouncing the whole American project as a wicked sham.”

How should Christians think about the Declaration? It depends which part of the Declaration we mean. The most famous part of the Declaration, in which Thomas Jefferson proclaimed, “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”? What about the details later on, which mention both “savage” Indians and slave insurrections? And what of Jefferson’s own background as a slave owner?

Regarding that best-known passage of the Declaration, there is much for Christians to celebrate. The greatest ideal animating the American experiment is here: the notion of equality by creation. In other words, whatever our social standing, we all stand equal before God as created beings. Earlier statements like the Virginia Declaration of Rights had spoken more vaguely of people as being “by nature” equal, but here Jefferson and his committee put a finer point on the action of God in creation, and in the endowment of rights. In spite of Jefferson’s well-known skepticism about Christian doctrine, he knew that our common standing before God was the most compelling basis on which to put equality.

Yet Jefferson’s standing as a slave owner immediately raises a question: If people are equal before God, then how can you justify slavery? Some African Americans like American soldier and evangelical pastor Lemuel Haynes asked this question within weeks of the promulgation of the Declaration. We’re not being revisionists by wondering about this issue, too.

Moreover, when you dig into the details of Jefferson’s list of grievances (the long section that few of us read) there are a couple of alarming passages. In one, Jefferson complains that the British had “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

Read More