When we speak about the values which should guide our country, we logically seek to identify what I call our ethical ground zero, the most basic principles which will form the foundation for our society and our governance. These principles should be those that always apply, even in times of stress, fear, turmoil, and disagreement. Guiding principles which can be ignored when times get tough turn out to not be principles at all. In effect, these principles are only goals and not really fundamental. The truest test of fundamental values and principles is how we act when we are severely tested in the application of those principles.
Many folks think that our national values and principles are enshrined politically in the Constitution and religiously in the Ten Commandments or perhaps some denominational interpretation of the Bible. Thus we experience continuous conflict over what the Constitution means and allows plus controversy over the appropriate role of religion in our society.
Despite claims to the contrary, most recognize that the Constitution is subject to different interpretations. In fact, the very existence of the U.S. Supreme Court is based on the recognized need to have a body to review governmental laws and policies in view of the Constitution. The workings of this court is therefore predicated on the concept of differences in constitutional interpretation. No one should reasonably expect that over a two hundred plus year period that such interpretation would be consistent and unchangeable. The unavoidable advancement of human understanding drives change in everything else; how can human governance be excepted?
For me and perhaps others there is a more basic set of guiding principles for our society and government than those inscribed in the Constitution. In fact, I refer to a document which preceded the Constitution and whose exalted words have enthralled and motivated millions of people outside our shores, who know nothing about the later document. I call attention to our Declaration of Independence written for the most part by Thomas Jefferson. The opening argument of that document contains these words: 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 few words are said by many to be the best known in the English language, implying that they outdo even Shakespeare.
Despite the recognized majesty of these lofty words, we must admit that the governmental system which was subsequently established in our country did not remotely rise to the level of these stated principles. Another often unappreciated aspect of this declaration is that it does not attempt to set apart our own citizens from the rest of the world in proclaiming this ethical ground zero. All men means every last one, throughout the world. Furthermore, self evident rights and equality across the total of humanity is declared to be indisputable; how else could it be self affirming?
One would suspect that the underlying enormity of these words and there far reaching implications are the very reason why few want to use them as our national values, those principles which are always honored without regard to personal consequences. Like most, I certainly tend to shrink from what these words might mean in terms of change and even sacrifice.
In terms of a religious ethical ground zero, we usually hear, as I noted previously, that the country should be guided by the Ten Commandments specifically and more generally by Christianity. This contention raises hackles all over the political spectrum and has some unavoidable problems. Relative to the Ten Commandments, we must note that these rules were given exclusively to the Jewish people, in accordance with the Bible. These commandments were only a small part of the Jewish society and order. Are we to adopt all of Judaism as our guiding principles or only a small part? Then, more significantly, Jesus is said to have reduced all he old Jewish law down to the so called Golden Rule, which was no part of the Ten Commandments. The Apostle Paul in Romans Chapter 13 repeats the teaching of Jesus as he states emphatically that all of the law is summarized in the command to love one another, just another way to state the Golden Rule.
After all that we noted above from Jesus and Paul, both of whom are widely referenced in defining Christianity, I ask why our religious guiding principle needs to be that which preceded Jesus and was redefined and clarified by both Jesus and Paul. I suspect that we all find ten rules much easier to deal with than the broad application of a principle like the Golden Rule which tends to question our traditional approach to everything, especially the issue of human governance and public policy. However difficult to contemplate, maybe the demands of a 21st Century world require something radically new and extremely challenging.
Paradoxically, Jesus said he brought peace and then turned right around and said he did not bring peace but rather a sword. What kind of peace is that, I wonder? I suspect he alluded to the fact that external peace requires internal conflict, letting go of old assumptions and infallible truths which are actually false. Perhaps we can fight that internal fight or hang on to principles which may seem comfortable but in the long run are self defeating.