A Fourth for All
St. John's-on-Sand Creek, Albany, New York
4 July 2021
When President Obama was elected for his first term, all the females in my family flew to Washington D.C. for the inauguration. I’m a wimp about weather, and it was January, so I stayed home, figuring I’d get a front row seat on the couch in front of the television and a lap blanket! But my daughters, my sister, my niece and my great-niece, Sophie, then about seven, all went. Before they left, Sophie said to her grandfather, my brother-in-law, “Papa, when you see a little black girl waving at you on the TV, that’s going to be me.”
Well, Papa didn’t get to see one little black girl waving at him. That’s because there were lots of little black girls—and little black boys, lots of white girls and white boys and a lot of grown-ups, all the colors and genders on the spectrum in between, gathered to witness the inauguration of a black man as President of the United States of America.
Now—I don’t know your politics. And at some level, I don’t care (and honestly, at some level, I do care since the gospel, while not partisan, is political). But this is an indisputable fact: the framers of the Constitution enshrined the three-fifths clause in that seminal document to which so many or our elected representatives regularly refer. We love the Constitution, yes? And yet in the Constitution, the three-fifths clause set the census value of a slave as 60 percent of the value of a free person. Do I need to repeat that?
And yes, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery. But 13th Amendment aside, the Constitution did not define who was eligible to vote. It was up to the states to decide who was eligible to vote. Most states allowed only white male adult property owners to vote. Freed slaves could vote in only four states. That’s four, not forty, states.
So a scant 150 years ago, Barack Obama would not have even been allowed to vote in this country. I actually want to say that again:
150 years or so ago, Barack Obama would not have been allowed to vote in this country.
And--even when suffrage was granted to all black males, voter discrimination practices often made it all but impossible for Black men to actually vote. So like or dislike President Obama as you will, but it is undeniable that the election of a Black man as President was a moment of American pride—late arriving, but still joyous. At least, that is what I deeply believe.
I did my graduate work at the University of Virginia. In Charlottesville, UVA is always referred to as Thomas Jefferson’s “Academical Village” because he designed it. And of course, what we didn’t do was refer to Thomas Jefferson by his first and his last name, as I just did. He was always called—and still is--“Mr. Jefferson.” This also meant that none of our professors went by the traditional honorific of "professor" or "doctor," either. If a simple "Mr." was good enough for Mr. Jefferson, "Mr." or "Ms" was good enough for our professors.
So in my graduate studies I was taught by Mr. Howard and Mr. Duggan and Mr. Casey and so on, though they all had PhDs. And when I taught undergraduates I was Ms Page, not Professor Page and never, ever simply “Jo.” Titles weren’t everything, but respect for the person’s role as teacher or leader was. UVA adhered to a formal culture that I, personally, found and still find meaningful.
Now--I am, I have to say, a big fan of the Declaration of Independence. And I don’t think it’s only because I did my grad work at Mr. Jefferson’s Academical Village. I think I love the Declaration of Independence because it is a right good document.
But I think it is a shame, really, that many people know the famous words from the Declaration (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”) But most folk don’t read far enough to encounter the wise challenge Mr. Jefferson offers a few lines later:
“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that [hu]mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
Or, to paraphrase, oppression by social injustice can be tolerable—until it is not.
Theologian Brad East, writing in the magazine The Point says: “Try as we might, we will not have a racially just society that remains full of racist people, or a peaceable society full of violent people, or an environmentally healthy society full of people who litter, pollute and daily despoil the earth. We must be a certain kind of people to attain certain kinds of virtue, including justice. We cannot have one without the other.”
This begs the obvious question: how to create a society full of radically less racist/homophobic/misogynistic people? How to create a society of less violent people? How to create a society in which fewer people (and chiefly, corporations) do not daily despoil the earth?
That’s our question to answer, bit by bit, day by day and year by year. We’ve always done that in this country. And by that, I don’t mean we have always done it well:
The wife of the second president of our country, Abigail Adams, entreated her husband, John Adams, in a letter, to “remember the ladies” when it came to the question of voting eligibility. (He ignored her. And “the ladies” didn’t get the vote until 1920.) But in that same letter, she cautioned him that “all men would be tyrants if they could.” That is exactly and precisely why she wanted women’s voices to be heard. But as I said, President John Adams ignored her request.
Our country has been very slow to give voice to all its inhabitants:
By 1856, white men were allowed to vote in all states regardless of property ownership. But Pennsylvania and New Jersey and several other states stripped free black males of the right to vote in that same period.
Native Americans, the indigenous people of this land, were not allowed to become U.S. citizens in their own land when the country ratified the Constitution in 1788. They would not win the right to be citizens in their own land for 136 years--though in 1887, Native Americans could earn the right to vote only if they dissociated themselves from their tribes.
Chinese immigrants were given the right to citizenship and the vote with the Magnuson Act in 1943. This repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which denied citizenship and voting rights. Yet the 1943 Magnuson Act still banned the ownership of property and businesses by ethnic Chinese. Can you even imagine?
Now--if you didn't already know these facts, you're probably shocked and astonished. And if you did know them and are not shocked and astonished, then I would ask you once again, to whom do Mr. Jefferson's "unalienable rights" belong?
After all, another shaper of our nation, Alexander Hamilton, asked an ever-timely question, “Can a political society really be governed by reflection and election, by reason and truth, rather than by accident and violence, by prejudice and deceit?”
That is a question for citizens of all nations, but it also highlights how, as people of faith, we need to think about our own history and our own civics. I believe that the meaning of the Declaration was not only to declare our independence from Britain, but also to underscore our interdependence with one another.
As people of faith, we are always governed first by a declaration of interdependence. We are called to recognize that we live a common life, a communal life—with our neighbors here, as well as our neighbors far away. As Christians governed first by a declaration of interdependence, we seek the imago dei, the image of God, that is imprinted on all human beings. Which means that people of all faiths and non-faiths are kin--and we are kin to the diversity of the human experience.
So on whose behalf must we speak? Whose needs must we consider?
Abigail Adams implored her husband to "remember the ladies" and he ignored her.
Benedictine contemplative sister and writer, Joan Chittister, writes, "God takes the side of the defenseless...The true contemplative, the truly spiritual person, then, must do justice, speak justice, insist on justice."
The “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” of which Mr. Jefferson so memorably speaks are only meaningful when they apply to all persons. It is our calling to seek the widest application of Mr. Jefferson’s words—because in so doing, we further and we show and we declare that our God or human moral kindness and hope—or both--has come among us to shed and share and bestow life—life abundantly.