For many years I have asked my composition students to write an essay explaining the concept “All men are created equal” within the context of the American experience. I include the original quotation from the “Declaration of Independence” and similar quotations from Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
I urge them to explain in what sense we are truly equal since we certainly aren’t equal in ability, talent, intelligence, athleticism, or beauty. Most evade this question and say we are equal in rights but when pressed admit the concept is claiming a kind of equality that stands as the reason why we ought to have equal rights. It is an inherent equality we possess before, and whether, it is acknowledged by the government.
Some are baffled and conclude that although we aren’t equal, the idea that we are is useful for social order and harmony. In other words, they believe the claim that we are created equal is a useful fiction. It is useful because being created equal is the best argument for equal rights.
I often urge them to look for clues in the rest King’s speech, the Declaration of Independence, and “The Gettysburg Address.” However, most of my students still draw a blank and instead of explaining the concept, give me a Wikipedia summary of the expansion of equal rights to women and people of color.
Despite King’s speech asking that we “speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last,’” most my students make no reference to God as the source of our equality. Even though the “Declaration of Independence” speaks of people being “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” and begins with an appeal to “Nature’s God”, most students make no reference to God as a source of equality. I try to give some gentle guidance by asking them to explain the significance of the word “created”, but it doesn’t help much.
In frustration some will demand I explain what “created equal” means. I suggest it may mean that we possess equal worth in the eyes of our Creator and therefore ought to be treated equally. That is why King declares us to be “all God’s children”. We are all created in the image of God, so we have equal value in His eyes. I then use the analogy of good parents valuing all the kids equally even though some may have handicaps.
Most of my students thinks this explanation makes sense and works well, but I am amazed that it occurs to so few—it is as though they have gone God-blind. They read right past the mention of God in their primary texts. I am not certain if this because of how American history is or isn’t taught in high schools or if it is because they think talking about God is simply off-limits in public education. Oddly, my religious and secular students are equally blind to God as the foundation of equality, so this is not a rant against godless Generation Z.
It is disconcerting that I can so easily persuade my students that it is ludicrous to think we are created equal. They are, to their credit, uneasy about us having rights that match our level of ability and intelligence. However, they are unable to give much more than a pragmatic argument for equal rights for everyone. Also to their credit, they quickly conclude that biochemistry and evolution offer no persuasive arguments for equality.
Whether one is on the left or right politically, students’ inability to explain what it means to be “created equal” should be alarming. Going God-blind may open the door for demagogues from both the right and the left. If we are not “all God’s children”, history teaches that it is easy for us to act like the devil’s.