We’re All Equal, Aren’t We?

Thursday 8/2/12

This piece appeared at a two-part article on FaithfulPolitics.org on 7/25/12 (part 1) and 8/1/12 (part 2) [1].

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The idea of equality (along with liberty and freedom) is one of the central concepts that has pervaded western civilization throughout the modern age and today.  Thomas Jefferson, in the beginning of the Declaration of Independence stated emphatically that it was a self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.”  During the French Revolution the motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” was used to express the will of the people and was more clearly spelled out in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.  Often we take equality for granted because it is such an interwoven piece of the fabric of American society.  Today the President of the United States, Congressmen and women, political pundits, news anchors, and the public at large use the word “equality” frequently and in many different contexts, often as a justification for some right or cause.

Equality, however, is not as straight-forward a concept as one might think.  In fact, the word can be used to describe many different kinds of equality.  Below I distinguish between four kinds of equality and their extent – in order of importance – and describe the harm that can be done to individuals and societies if these distinctions are not understood and if their order of priority is inverted.

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel

Ontological Equality: Ontology is the study of the nature of being or existence.  This is the most important idea of equality because it relates to God’s creation of man and woman as being intrinsically equal in the essence of their being and their value before God.  Scripture provides compelling examples of this truth.  God created both male and female in his image and then declared them to be “very good” (Gen. 1:27, 31).  In Romans 2:11 Paul states that God favors no one, but will render unto each according to what he or she has done (see also 2 Cor. 5:10).  However, the most striking evidence we have for human equality before God is that Jesus Christ died once for all, making it possible for all to be redeemed if they will believe in Him (2 Cor. 5:14-15; Rom. 10:9-10).  Jesus did not have to die first for all white people, then again for all immigrants, and then once more for those within a certain income bracket, and so forth.  Jesus’ death was sufficient to appease God’s wrath against all sin (1 John 2:2), and his resurrection was sufficient to raise anyone from death to life.  Before the cross of Christ Paul could truly say that there is now no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female (Gal. 3:28)  [2].  Because God treats all people equally, favoring no one, Christians are commanded to do likewise, showing partiality to none (James 2:1-7)  [3].  In a similar manner just and ethical societies should seek to do the same by treating everyone equally under the law, by respecting each person as equally valuable to God, and by protecting their natural rights (to life, liberty, free will, property, the fruit of one’s labor, etc).

John Adams

Equality of Created Attributes: Even though we are all equal in God’s sight and are as valuable to Him as anyone else, we are not created with equal attributes, either physical, mental, or emotional.  There is great diversity among human beings and no two are exactly alike.  If you stop and think about it, this a blessing, for if all people were created perfectly equal in every way we would be nothing but robotic automatons.  Created differences will mean that some people will have talents and abilities that others don’t; it will mean that some will excel through hard work and perseverance, while others won’t; it will mean that some will be favored for specific jobs or vocations while others are excluded.   The founders of the American nation realized this was true.  John Adams, in an effort to refute the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau who taught that all people were created to be equal in every way, said,

That all men are born to equal rights is true.  Every being has a right to his own, as clear, as moral, as sacred, as any other being has…But to teach that all men are born with equal powers and faculties, to equal influence in society, to equal property and advantages through life, is as gross a fraud, as glaring an imposition on the credulity of the people, as ever was practiced by monks, by Druids, by Brahmins, by priests of the immortal Lama, or by the self-styled philosopher of the French Revolution  [4].

This distinction between equal rights and equal faculties and power has tremendous implications for how people live and where they place their worth and value as humans beings.

Tom Brady, talented quarterback for the New England Patriots

Equality of Opportunity: The idea of equal opportunity is especially vibrant in our society due to an awareness of inequality in centuries past, and current affirmative action crusades that have emerged as a response.  The desire and effort to provide equal opportunities for education, work, and income (among others), is a good cause that should not be belittled.  Just governments will seek to prevent unfair discrimination against certain groups of people that is unwarranted, such as discriminating against ethnic and racial groups, the poor, and those of different sexual orientations simply because of these distinctions  [5].  Yet how realistic is it to believe that equal opportunity can be provided for everyone in every capacity of life?  I believe that unequal opportunity is unavoidable for two reasons.  First, because we are not created with equal attributes, qualities, and abilities, some people will either create for themselves more opportunity than others, or will be selected for opportunities that others will be denied.  For example, the 6’ 4” 225 pounds wide receiver on an elite college football team is more likely to be chosen for the NFL draft than that 5’ 7” 135 pounds footballer who also dreams of a pro career.  Such favoritism can be attributed to talent, hard work, or physical ability and is not intrinsically wrong.  Second, family life and the milieu we are raised in will have a lot to do with the opportunities afforded to us in life.  If our parents are wealthy we are more likely to be given an elite education (although this does not guarantee success); if an individual is born into the projects in an inner city, he or she is more likely to drop out of high school to help support their family (although this is not inevitable).  What we are born with and how and where we are raised are factors outside our control and will give rise to unequal opportunities  [6].

Equality of Results: Equality of results is the effort to make sure that all citizens in a society have the same amount of assets, whether it be property, income, or material possessions.  The focus is on eliminating wealth discrepancies, theoretically preventing anyone from being extremely rich or miserably poor while providing equal access to all goods and services.  This concept of equality is what social welfare governments (such as those in Europe and in many ways the United States) have been primarily focused on for the past century  [7].  It is what we hear about from the current President of the United States who desires to “redistribute wealth” and have “shared responsibility” in order to create a more fair and equal society.   However, these are utopian ideals that are impossible to achieve for a number of reasons  [8].  First, the combination of different natural abilities along with unavoidable inequalities in opportunity will guarantee an inequality of results, meaning that not all people will own the same amount of landed property, will make the same paycheck, or will possess the same amount of material goods.  Second, those who aim at equal results at all cost end up stifling people’s gifts and talents, personal endeavor, the entrepreneurial spirit, and success and prosperity in order to level the playing field.  This smothers the very things that make us uniquely human.  Third, and most importantly, making equality of results the ultimate goal will lead to violating people’s ontological equality as certain groups are targeted by the law while others are favored.  This is a violation of the primary purpose of government: to administer justice by treating people equally under the law, protecting individual volition and property, and mitigating harm we do to each other.  By inverting these four equalities and placing results first, advocates of “fairness” and the modern welfare state have effectively turned the government against the people, “legalized” theft, and approved of unethical treatment against those who have succeeded and prospered through their gifting, hard work, and innovation.  This is the mark of a deeply unequal and unfair society.

I do not oppose working toward a more equal outcome if it can be done under equal protection of the law and without disrespecting persons or trampling on others’ rights.  But if we observe ontological equality by respecting individuals and their God-given rights through due process of law, and if we recognize that not everyone is equal in every attribute or ability or will be given the same opportunities in life, then we can accept the unequal distribution of wealth and influence that will inevitably result.  If we desire to be free and to respect each other as equal in God’s sight and under human laws, then we must accept unequal wealth.  As Alexander Hamilton once said, “inequality would exist as long as liberty existed…it would unavoidably result from that very liberty itself”  [9].

What are our societal values?

Why is this a problem in America today?  It seems clear that as America has drifted from her ethical moorings and has been increasingly secularized, the belief that people are created equal by God and loved equally by him has become passé.  Thus, our worth as individuals is no longer grounded in our relationship with God in Christ, but in how much we own, what we produce with our labor, the gifts and talents that we are born with, or what we can contribute to the progress of society.  Equality of results has now become the measure of our value and the mark of an acceptable society, and so it has understandably been promoted by individuals and governments alike as what’s most important  [10].  Since American society is in such a mixed up state, it is imperative that Christians set straight the priorities of equality and proclaim that our worth is determined by God alone, and in his sight he loves and cares for all of his creation, which was ultimately demonstrated in Christ’s sacrifice for all.  Once this is believed, it frees us up to not only accept certain kinds of inequality as good and natural, but it enables and invigorates us to care for those in need, providing opportunities for education and work that builds others’ up and enables them to do what they could not do before.

Notes:

[1] I am now a regular monthly contributor to FaithfulPolitics, which is run by Denver Seminary students.

[2] Galatians 3:28 must be kept in perspective and not taken too far in either direction: unity in Christ does not mean that all distinctions are obliterated, for the Bible also affirms gender and social class differences (see Eph. 5:21-6:9).  At the same time, unity in Christ does mean that Christians are to take care of those in need in very real and tangible ways (1 John 3: 16-18; see also the early church example in Acts 4:32-37).

[3] James gives the example of not showing partiality to the rich at the exclusion of the poor, but I believe the inverse to be true as well.  The point is that a person’s material possessions should be not be the basis for how we relate to them, either disliking or favoring them personally or through government legislation.

[4] Quoted in The American Enlightenment: The Shaping of the American Experiment in a Free Society by Adrienne Koch, ed. (New York, George Braziller, 1965), 222.

[5] It is important to realize that discrimination in and of itself is not wrong, but is in fact necessary and good in many instances.  For example, we discrimination against the blind by now allowing them to drive any kind of motor vehicle.  This is justified discrimination because to do otherwise would endanger the driver and every other person on the road.  The issue is not whether we discriminate, but whether our discrimination is justified or unjustified.  Denying someone an education or job on the basis of their skin color, ethnicity, nationalization status, or sexual orientation is unjustified and wrong.

[6] I am not saying that those born in unfortunate life situations should just be left as they are and told “tough luck.”  For those who are struggling with personal handicaps, family issues, or environment influences, others who are in a position to help (individuals, communities, or the government) should do everything they can to help and assist those who are struggling as long as it does not harm others.

[7] The movement to create a society that guarantees equality of results in the United States began during the Progressive Era under President Woodrow Wilson in the early 20th century and came into full force under President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s and 1940s.  Roosevelt’s New Deal and Second Bill of Rights were the direct results of such thinking and only continued through the rest of the century, manifesting itself in The Great Society under President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s and today in the continued efforts to redistribute wealth and build the welfare state.

[8] Besides the reasons I give, creating a fair society by guaranteeing equality of results was the major reason Communist governments existed in the 20th century.  Not only did these societies fail to achieve this, but they are renown for their corruption and the wholesale slaughter of millions of their own citizens.

[9] Harold C. Syrett et al., eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 19 vols. 1793 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961), 4:218.  I would also like to add that liberty does not just guarantee inequality of results that destine some to abject and continual poverty, but also opens the floodgates for voluntary giving and charity.  People who live under governments that forcibly take money through taxes or penalties in order to redistribute wealth are more likely to be stingy with their money and look for tax shelters or loopholes.  However, when people are given the freedom to prosper, they often are more charitable than we realize.  America has not only been the most prosperous nation in world history, but also the most generous at both the individual and government level.

[10] Such a moral explanation for the emphasis on equality of results is only one of many possible explanations and is not meant to be all-encompassing.  One could also look at declining quality of education, income levels, inflation, the bourgeoning middle class, the shift from industrial to service jobs, the global economy, and the modern welfare state with its entitlement mentality, among other things.

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