We Need A Foundation
About the Author
Owen Anderson is a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Arizona State University. He is the author of eight books including The Declaration of Independence and God with Cambridge University Press.
The Declaration of Independence as Foundation
We did not get the foundation in place.
That might seem like a strange way to begin an essay but that must be clearly in focus if any of what follows is to make sense. A foundation is the set of beliefs on which rest all of our values. When we see competing value systems, we are also witnessing competing foundations. The Declaration of Independence (hereafter DOI) was an attempt at getting a foundation in place. It was meant to unite its readers around a common set of beliefs that were then used to support its argument even as these were then used to explain why other bands of unity must be dissolved. These same beliefs are used to explain why there is not sufficient unity with the British and to provide the basis for unity among the colonists. The Declaration makes its appeal to the world and on the basis of the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God; this is to say it is presenting a case that is for all to understand on the basis of the law that is for all people. What happened so that there are (and have been) significant divisions about the most important aspects of our culture and government? If we want to overcome our current divisions, then we need to have foundational truths in place to provide unity.
The foundational part of the DOI is found here:
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.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The DOI itself uses the term foundation. We should not think of this as the foundationalism sometimes said to be characteristic of Modern Philosophy. Rather, it is the general recognition that our beliefs are ordered. Some of our beliefs have assumptions. When we trace these assumptions back to the beginning, we get our foundational beliefs.
The Founders understood themselves to be laying a new foundation to provide safety and happiness. And I have always appreciated that they clearly stated their foundational beliefs when they said that they hold these truths to be self-evident: There is a Creator; the Creator has created us as equal; the Creator has given us inalienable rights; and that governments are instituted to secure these rights. We can number these 1-5 where #1 is the claim that these are self-evident and 2-5 are what follows after that.
The Insufficient Foundation
Here is the problem we need to deal with: This has not been a lasting foundation. Each of those points was not securely laid. And that means that subsequent generations have doubted them and have been divided over what to put in their place. One might ask why we would think a secure foundation can [even] be laid, but the DOI itself states that this is its intention. Consider the alternative: there is no foundation. The obvious problem is that this assertion operates as a kind of foundational truth. Everyone starts somewhere. But not all starting points are coherent.
Consider the claim that “these truths are self-evident.” They are not self-evident. To be self-evident means that the truth of a statement is contained within itself. Something like the laws of thought: a is a. That is self-evident. You do not look to another proof to support it but instead these laws of thought are what is required for any proof. Aristotle said this of the law of non-contradiction and gave a similar way to understand its truth.
I think it would be understandable if someone were to say this is too technical a way to think of the term self-evident in the DOI. Perhaps it was intended to mean something more like commonly held or commonly agreed upon by our audience. This does not help the case. We should all know that what we assume as common sense may not be true and may indeed be doubted and even rejected by others. If the premises of our argument are like, this then our conclusion will not be secured.
It is also possible that someone could say these are indubitable but also that the document is not meant to be a theological-philosophical defense. Such a defense could be done elsewhere. I think this is the most promising understanding of what is going on. But it also means that if such a defense does not happen elsewhere, and is not continued to be reiterated generationally, then the foundation will not be secured. And this observation brings us to our problem.
It is obvious to all that we are currently divided. And not simply divided, but deeply divided. Some of these divisions have persisted throughout U.S. history. This means that they were not taken care of through a proper foundation from the very beginning. We do not agree that it is self-evident that there is a Creator. There are many disagreements about origins. And these cannot be set aside as of no account because persons get their values and purpose from their understanding of origins. Some examples of competing views: God the Creator and Ruler (Theism), God the Creator Alone (Deism), All Is God (Emerson and the Pantheists), There Is No God (Atheists). Each of these describe very different understandings of what it is to be a human and what is the purpose of human life.
And this division feeds into the other foundational claims of the DOI. If there is no Creator, then we are not created equal. Or, if all is God, then what it means for us to be equal is very different than if we are the image of God but not God. If all is God, then there is no creation and no Creator/creature distinction. Or, if God has created us but is no longer active in history, then this describes a very different reality than one where redemption is made possible by God. Similarly, if the neo-Darwinian account of origins is true then only material causes exist and humans are only bodies of matter with no future after death. All of these have different accounts of where we came from, what we are, and where we are going.
Divisions from the Beginning
These various accounts mean that these divisions have been there from the beginning. None of the work of the Founders addressed these or provided a foundation for unity. I suppose someone might even say that we are supposed to accept these divisions as inevitable, and the point of the government is to protect diversity of this kind (some of the Federalist Papers might be understood this way). Keep in mind what that means: there is no foundation, only foundations, and we should not expect unity. I do not believe that any of the Federalist Papers say this. The kinds of diversity that we want to protect are not about foundational truths. Those foundational truths, as stated in the DOI, are what provides the possibility of protecting other kinds of differences. We must agree on basic things if we are to protect other less basic disagreements.
These divisions are the product of skepticism. Skepticism says that we cannot know. Since we cannot know which of these views is true, all of them are merely opinions. And all opinions are equal. No opinion should be given preference over others. This would explain why work was not done to show that there is indeed a Creator in contrast to these other views. We cannot simply assert that such is the case or that everyone already believes in God. We need to show this to be true. And that is how we lay a lasting foundation. We provide those truths that are most basic and are necessary for the rest of our beliefs. The DOI did well to lay out the need for a Creator but did not solidly put this in place through reason and argument. The consequence is that these foundational truths have been doubted and rejected down to our time.
We are badly divided. We cannot simply appeal to what any one of us takes to be self-evident. That is insufficient as a foundation. What we must do is identify foundational beliefs and provide the needed proof in contrast to alternatives. It is possible that someone will still disagree. But they will no longer have a reason for doing so if proof has been given. Proof answers objections. Someone can continue to disagree in silence. If we do not do this work, if we do not have a foundation in place for unity, then we will reap the consequences of divisions. We will no longer have a basis for life together. This should be motivation enough for us to see the need for a foundation and do the work to get one in place so that we can say there is indeed a Creator who has created us equal, and on this basis we have rights and government.