“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” begins the most famous line of political text in American history, “that all men are created equal.” Quite so, says the conservative. But what sort of equality did the Founders who signed the Declaration of Independence have in mind? For as we explored in Part 1, “equality” can mean quite a lot of different things.
No one can seriously argue that equality means all humans are the same in the sense we are all the same height or have identical athletic abilities, levels of attractiveness, or intelligence. But does equality imply we should be the same in some sense we’re currently not? Does equality mean we are all equally capable of achieving the same if given the same opportunities? Does it mean that the idea of granting us all the same opportunities is meaningless because there’s no way to alter all the historical grievances and societal and economic conditions that cause inequalities and, therefore, the next best thing is to enforce equal outcomes? Or does it go even further and suggest that the mere presence of those historical grievances is justification for retribution against a class or group of people who have wrongly profited off the rest of us?
The conservative advocates none of these definitions of equality. Rather, the conservative professes the equality of all humans before God and before the law. Let’s take a closer look at each:
Equality Before God
Equality before God is not a theological assertion about the existence or presence of God; rather, it is the recognition that humans are—morally, spiritually, and substantively speaking—on an equal footing. The religious tone of the idea can be derived from the Christian understanding of humanity, which teaches that “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34) and, as such, neither should we be (James 2:9).
In other words, while humans are prone to recognize inequalities in things like wealth, ability, intelligence, skin-color, even personalities, and assign some value accordingly, none of that ultimately changes our worth. “[Equality] is an absolute of morals by which all men have a value invariable and indestructible and a dignity as intangible as death,” wrote G. K. Chesterton. What we do with our lives—how we live and behave and think and feel—matters. But it does not alter the raw material of who we are as people, which is of equal worth and dignity. Nor is it in our power to change the substance of who we are.
The doctrine of equality before God would hold racism or sexism—that is, viewing someone as inferior or superior on the basis of their race or sex alone—to be both wrong and intolerable. There is space for recognizing differences between the races and the sexes, and for debating what responses or roles or functions those differences may warrant or suggest. But the basic substance of the individual is all the same, regardless of the color of their skin or the number of x chromosomes in their genes.
And, while it is true some humans have a greater ability to lead, equality before God also dispels any notions of certain individuals having some inherent right to lead. American conservatives—following the example of the Founders—have long been hostile to privileges and positions granted on the basis of one’s bloodline. Although previously subject to the British monarch, the Founders found claims of nobility and honor afforded merely due to the accident of one’s family background most repugnant.
And even pro-monarch conservatives, such as Edmund Burke, vehemently rejected arbitrary rulers. It is true Burke was a fierce defender of the British monarchy, particularly as the radical revolutionaries in France threatened to spill over into England and topple the government. But Burke was defending the ancient and historic institution of the state, and not the idea that some humans are simply born to rule other humans. “Do not imagine that I wish to confine power, authority, and distinction to blood, and names, and titles,” Burke wrote, “No, sir. There is no qualification for government, but virtue and wisdom, actual or presumptive.” When the monarch was not under threat, Burke was one of the strongest advocates for reigning in the power and reach of King George III.
It is to our benefit that we have leaders who are virtuous and wise. But virtue and wisdom are only qualifying attributes for leadership, not an actual claim on leadership. That is, the presence of virtue and wisdom does not give anyone the right to lead, and certainly the mere accident of which family or race or group you were born into is even less of a reason. Nor do our elected officials deserve to hold their office on the basis that it’s “their turn” or because they’ve had a particularly harrowing or heroic story, though they may—and we may expect—this to be the case.
Equality before God would also mean—or at least, heavily suggest—that it may not even be possible to successfully appoint leaders of ideal virtue and wisdom in the long run, nor would that guarantee a nation will be led in a right and wise path. Thomas Carlyle rightly rejected a class-based aristocracy and favored instead a “aristocracy of talent”. But that presupposes such an arrangement is even possible. For, while it is true some people have shown themselves to be more virtuous and wiser than others, we still all come from that same basic substance. Chesterton rebuked Carlyle’s views as a “pathetic belief” for that very reason:
“The weak point in the whole of Carlyle's case for aristocracy lies, indeed, in his most celebrated phrase. Carlyle said that men were mostly fools. Christianity, with a surer and more reverent realism, says that they are all fools. This doctrine is sometimes called the doctrine of original sin. It may also be described as the doctrine of the equality of men. But the essential point of it is merely this, that whatever primary and far-reaching moral dangers affect any man, affect all men. All men can be criminals, if tempted; all men can be heroes, if inspired. And this doctrine does away altogether with Carlyle's pathetic belief (or anyone else's pathetic belief) in ‘the wise few.’ There are no wise few. Every aristocracy that has ever existed has behaved, in all essential points, exactly like a small mob.”
If it’s true that we are all equal—that is, equally prone to vice and folly—then that leaves us with a bit of a mess on our hands. There is no sure bet; there is no system of government or arrangement between groups and individuals or “political” solutions that will ensure virtuous and wise leaders, or the peace and prosperity we would hope would come of being led by such individuals. When we speak of equality, our hearts may well up with pride in the hope for some common goodness and decency. But that equality cuts both ways, for we are just as prone to evil as we are to good. And a political system that does not take that into account is prone to destruction far greater and faster than a political system that works to mitigate against our human imperfections.
Conservatives have lauded the Constitution of the United States for this exact reason. Indeed, James Madison wrote, in defending the Constitution in Federalist Paper #51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” It is precisely because the Founders recognized our equality before God that they devised a system of government that has endured where so many others have failed or fallen into authoritarian rule barely recognizable from its original aspirations.
Equality Before the Law
If it’s true all humans are of equal worth and dignity and that we are all capable of virtue and wisdom but also vice and folly, and, as that would further suggest, no human can claim a right to rule, then we might reasonably ask what implications this has on our political outlook and legal framework. The great observer of American society, Alexis de Tocqueville, connects the dots for us: “Christianity, which has declared that all men are equal in the sight of God, will not refuse to acknowledge that all citizens are equal in the eye of the law.”
The same Christian teaching that we are all equal in the eyes of God and ought to treat one another with a similar outlook provides the justification for a legal system that treats everyone with impartiality. This is commonly referred to as the Rule of Law—the idea that no one is above the law and, as such, ought to be treated equally under the law. The legal framework applied to each citizen, therefore, should not differ for reasons such as a person’s wealth or class or station. The President of the United States should be no less free to break the law or evade punishment than someone who is homeless or poor or a minority.
And, while there may be special cases for unique treatment of certain groups, such exceptions are not arbitrary and are applied uniformly to anyone who falls under the provisions of these unique cases. For example, the law may be applied unequally in certain circumstances such as reaching a certain age to be eligible to vote, or being grandfathered in to an older provision of a law, or a priest, attorney, or spouse not being made to testify against a defendant in a trial. These special circumstances do not violate the Rule of Law. But it would be a violation if we allowed an underaged citizen to vote on the basis they were related to a certain political leader, or only some were grandfathered into an older provision of a law because they were white, or a judge felt it was particularly important the spouse of a certain defendant testify in this one particular case.
Successfully administering the Rule of Law is a tall order. And, while the United States has come closer than most nations in achieving such legal impartiality, it cannot be denied that rampant impartialities exist. There is no simple nor easy solution for addressing these impartialities, and much of that discussion stretches far beyond our topic at hand. What the conservative insists, is that equality before the law and the Rule of Law means we treat alterations, additions, and deletions to the law as a near-sacred procedural process and not by executive or judicial fiat. A law may be good or bad, but of equal—and sometimes greater—importance is how we arrived at that law, how it is enforced, and how it is interpreted.
To the conservative, the law is not some plaything or a means of pursuing the latest theory on “justice”, but the very foundation on which our political structure is built. Either we live under the Rule of Law, in which case we respect and follow the proper procedures for altering the law, or we live under the rule of men, in which case the law is altered on the prejudices and preferences of our leaders or the mob.
Throughout the twentieth century and on into the present, conservatives have long fought against the growing tendencies of both the executive and judicial branches of the Federal government to step outside of the established procedures to enact law. And, while it may be true that plenty of Federal and Supreme Court justices and past presidents have had the greatest of intentions and the most altruistic of attitudes, the conservative is understandably wary of handing over the keys of law itself to the goodness and wisdom of a handful of unelected magistrates or single individual.
Just as Chesterton chided Carlyle's call for an “aristocracy of talent” the conservative’s rebukes leaders who step outside of established procedures on the basis that something is the “right thing to do” or that it’s time to “get things done”. Equality before the law is needed precisely because we have equality before God. Democratic institutions are needful not because of the common “goodness” of humanity, but because of our common wickedness and potential to do harm.
Recognizing and defending these dual equalities is what makes the variety of life that conservatives celebrate possible. But enforcing a broader understanding of equality above and beyond this limited view squelches the variety of life, as we will explore in Part 3.