Declaration Principles Reborn
August 11, 1996
Address given at the Declaration Foundation
Inaugural Reception, August 11, 1996, San Diego, California. The Declaration
Foundation was incorporated on June 7, 1996. Dr. Alan Keyes is the Chairman
of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of the Foundation.
Dr. Keyes has developed a reputation as a fiery orator, but even more importantly, as a keen observer of culture, history and philosophy.
In the following transcript, Dr. Keyes explains the mission of the Declaration Foundation and its goals. This transcript is of a speech Dr. Keyes made at the Inaugural Reception of the Declaration Foundation, at San Diego's Wyndham Plaza Hotel on August 11, 1996.
I'm glad that you all had a
chance to come out today, and help us to inaugurate, in this context, an
effort which we've been building for the last several months, and which I
hope will become part of, and make a contribution to, the renewal of moral
identity which I believe is vital to the future of the American republic.
We're not gathered in this room today in any partisan guise, not gathered as Republicans or Democrats, or conservatives or liberals. The Declaration Foundation has as its aim the restoration of that which is the foundation of the common ground which binds us all, whatever our backgrounds as Americans.
Every now and again I will go somewhere and hear people talk as if there is no such common ground. And is you watch the way the discussion of major issues takes place in the country today, you would almost believe that that was the case: that as Americans, we may have it in common that we all desire more of this or that (more money, more in the way of jobs, more in the way of strength and power and whatever) but that's the only thing we have in common--our common passions, our common greed. Not a very pretty picture of the country. And not at all the understanding with which this nation was founded.
I think if we don't soon recover the understanding they had at the beginning, then we shall continue down the road of a debased and dejected freedom that will in the end become such a burden to us; such a violation of our dignity, that we shall gladly give it up.
There may be some people who hope that we sill give up our freedom. For, nothing is so opportune for tyrants as a people tired of its liberty--offended by the stench of its own corrupt freedom. And it's amazing how quickly they give it up.
In the course of this century, we've actually experienced, witnessed, the terrible consequences that come from this. It was this great weariness that, in the end, gave birth to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, as civilized people looked upon the consequences of their abuse of freedom, and delivered themselves into the arms of tyrants who promised to clean things up.
Is this what we want?
Of course it's not. We do not think of ourselves as such a people. When we use the word "freedom," we use it with pride. We think of it as a wonderful thing--the phrase that rings in our mind from our wonderful Constitution: the blessings of liberty.
But as I often tell people, where there are blessings there is also the possibility of cursings. And if we are to avoid the curses of liberty, then I think we have to recapture that understanding of our freedom which allows our rights, our freedom, our sense of justice, to produce decency and order, and to produce as well a nation in which we can take pride.
So how do we do it?
I actually think it's fairly simple. It's not complicated. And yet it's going to be very difficult.
I'm glad to say that there are signs that at least a start is being made. A friend came up to me just now who was telling me that they were listening to a speech by Newt Gingrich in which he actually talked about the need to return to our Declaration Principles. This is good. And I was gratified to see a phrase introduced into the platform of the Republican Party that talks about the importance of our Declaration Principles. This is good. But do you know what's not so good? What's not so good is that you can't just mouth the words. What's not so good is that you can't just pretend with rhetoric--because our principles have consequences. They have consequences for the great issues of right and wrong that we face as a people. And, in the course of our history, the great turning points of American life have been those moments when, as a people, we faced the crossroads. And down one road, we could see the future implied by our Declaration, and down the other, the future implied by our abandonment of it--and we had to make a choice.
It wasn't easy. It's never flattering to our passions. Because much as it sounds real good when we say it, you know, those words of the Declaration: "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"--we have gotten so used to repeating those words as if they only speak about some gift to us, something we get, as if they only imply a grant of permission, a license, as if the only thing that is contained in those words is a promise made by the "politician-God," which he shall fulfill for us. But that's not so.
Contained also in the Declaration--it's not just a creed of liberty; it's not just a creed of equality. It is also, in its very formulation, an understanding of authority; and understanding of responsibility; an understanding of the discipline which, as a people, we must accept--and accept, by the way, at every level--if we are to be free.
And the great crises of American history have come when, in some way, we have to confront that choice. I believe, of course, that the great crisis of the nineteenth century was whether, as a nation, we were going to live by our Declaration principles. And slavery presented the challenge to us in the starkest form. And we had to choose between those creeds, which were the creed of slavery and the creed of freedom based upon the Declaration. And when the choice was made, the nation was ripped asunder, families torn apart, states divided, brother against brother, hand against hand, until, as Lincoln said, "every drop of blood drawn from the lash was requited by another drawn with the sword." It was a time of terrible judgment.
And see, if we would only understand what that portends! We have the circus politicians--and I'm not speaking of any one party, either. I mean all, the whole lot of them, who come before us and act as if the business of American life is to gratify our baser passions--as if the only thing that we are to care about is how much is in our belly, and how much is in our wallets, and what we get to do in our bedrooms. That debased understanding of our liberty is what's accepted, almost universally now, across the board.
But I ask you to consider. I ask you to consider really seriously.
It's such an understanding of our freedom--something for the sake of which we would dare to ask the young men and women in this audience to go out and risk their lives and die? It certainly is not.
And actually, when we reach the great crises, the great moments when we have to make that demand upon patriotism, then all of a sudden we rediscover that this nation is about high ideals and noble aspirations and a better understanding of human nature than seems to characterize our politics of everyday. And it was that kind of an appeal, that kind of an understanding, that Lincoln had to have when he led this nation through that terrible crisis of the Civil War, when the greatest challenge was put, and answered, by Americans.
And it wasn't the only one. We have seen it in the course of the history since that time. And it came to us in the Civil Rights Movement in the form of whether or not, in the face of laws at the state level and local level that discriminated against individuals, we were going to abide by Declaration Principles. And as the nation had to answer it in the time of slavery, so the states had to answer it during the time of Civil Rights: "Are we a Declaration people? Will we abide by those principles?"
And then too, it was not just a question of a happy and rosy future. No. It was a question of a real choice, a difficult choice. A choice of heart and mind that then required sacrifice, and the risk of life and limb and reputation from people who were determined to answer the question right: "We shall live according to the Declaration!"
I think that we are in a time today when we face the greatest crisis of all. It's misunderstood, but it's going to be the one that really determines our survival. Because the question is no longer being put to us, in the form of slavery, to our nation. It is no longer being put to us, in the Civil Rights movement, to our states and local government. It is being put to us, in many forms today, as an issue directed at us, as individuals.
No longer is it a demand before the tribunal of the nation or the state, or any government, in fact. It's really a question in our hearts, in our choices: "Are we going to be a people of the Declaration?"
And of course the issue that represents it most starkly, the abortion issue, puts it right there in the most intimate form of all. And they stand up and make the argument in that form as well: "Well, this body, it belongs to you, it's your choice, and you get to decide." And then you have to go back and look at that Declaration and ask yourself not how it applies to this government and that law and that politics, but how does it apply to us?
And it is true that a people unwilling to govern itself in their hearts by the principles of the Declaration are going to be a people long governed in their law and in their institutions by that Declaration. This is what we face now.
But the reason we're gathered here today is not just to go through all that. I've been trying to go through it for the last year and a half or so--I'm making a small dent, I think. But not a big one. The big one won't come in that other context until things have been won and things have been lost, and people wake up to realize that in the end you have to deal with the truth, or it deals with you.
The reason that we're gathered here today, though, is because the Declaration, the challenge that it poses to us, is something that is greater than politics. And it's something that can't be dealt with in a political context.
The challenge is put to me most clearly when I remember a speech I gave to a group in which I asked whether or not the children in the audience--these were high-school-age kids--I asked if they studied the Declaration in school. And they actually said that they had, at some point, in a course that they had taken. But one girl got up and complained that they had sort of studied about it, and even that they had handed out something that had the whole thing written on it, but it was written in such small type you couldn't read it. I found that interesting. But if offers to us a challenge.
How can we expect people to respect in their hearts principles they don't even know about anymore? How can we ask them to accept in their choices, and be governed in their choices, and be governed in their actions, by a logic that they cannot even reason through?
Something has to be done to restore our sense of the relevance of this great founding document and its principles. And we have to do it in a context where we understand that on right and left, there have been assaults launched against this Declaration.
There have been the assaults of the left, of course, which come in many forms. You know, you go through the document: "We hold these truths . . ." But, of course, the philosophers deny the possibility of truth.
". . . To be self-evident, that all men are created . . ." And then you stop with the "men." And the feminists stand up and say, "See, it's just a document written by those dirty dead white males. It didn't even include women. We should reject this."
Now, I know that a certain amount of ignorance is excusable, even on the left, but it ought to be understood that when the Founders used the word "man" or "men," they translated that from the Greek anthropos, which referred to humanity. It was not anare, which referred to males. OK? You can go look at their translations and see that they knew the difference.
They used to have to translate from Greek into English a fair amount in those days. And so for those who want to deny that they made this distinction, I say that they're either ignorant or lying. Because in point of fact it was well understood by everyone who wrote it that what they were dealing with in that document was human nature, applied to all people: male, female, whatever. But the assault is launched in order to discredit it in the eyes of people who don't know any better. And of course the assault is launched.
If you mention the Declaration, somebody is going to stand up and say, "Well, Jefferson had slaves." So that means what? What does that mean?
I really don't understand. King David committed adultery. Does that mean that the Ten Commandments aren't true? No, but that's the sort of argument they make.
You know, you and I are sometimes incapable of living up to our ideals. Does that mean that they're not true? No, it means that we're not true to them. That's what it means.
But, you know, the saddest thing for me is that the assault not only comes from left, it comes from right. We've had people who call themselves conservatives in America who want to throw out the Declaration because they claim it's some kind of deistic, naturalistic document that rejects religion. I beg to differ.
I believe that it is absolutely clear, in everything the Founders did, that they intended the Declaration to be a bridge between the Bible and the Constitution--between the basis of our moral faith and the basis of our political life.
If we allow the bridge to be torn down, then what we will have is a chasm between this nation's life and its moral foundations. And into that chasm will fall every hope we have for the future.
And so the Declaration Foundation is, in a sense, in line with what we hear so much about in other respects--I consider it a kind of "infrastructure restoration." I want to rebuild it strong. But to rebuild it strong does not require in this case money and bricks and mortar. It requires that we take up once again the task of challenging our minds to understand what these principles mean, and challenging our minds to make use of them in dealing with the practical issues that every day we face--particularly those which are today most challenging.
I spent a lot of time in the last year and more talking to people about the moral crisis America faces. At some level people are reluctant to deal with this, even though I have found universally everybody says it is so. "Yes, we're in the midst of a great moral crisis. Yes, that is the real cause of our problems. No, we don't know what to do about it, so let's talk about money and budgets instead."
But you know, that is based on the notion that we don't have any moral principles to reason from. And yet right there, in the country's beginning, we have a statement of those moral principles. The Declaration constitutes a definition of the source and limits of our freedom.
The source is God. And the limits are quite clearly defined: we cannot use the freedom in such a way as to claim unto ourselves the authority which is the basis of our freedom. It makes it very clear, very simple.
So if somebody comes to you and says, "You have the authority to decide whether that child in your womb is a human or not," the Declaration says, "Well, I can't claim that authority. It is the Creator who decided that. It is the Creator who endowed us with rights. I do not decide that for my child. And if I claim the right to make that decision, then I deny the authority which is the basis for all my rights."
And so once you have seen in the Declaration the logic that it defined, it is suddenly pretty clear that the first thing you have to remember is that freedom is not an unlimited license, it is not an unlimited choice, it is not even an unlimited opportunity. Freedom is, in fact, in the first instance, a responsibility. And it is in the first instance a responsibility before the God from whom we come.
And now, see, I think that that has--once you start to think it through--tremendous consequences, because it also warns us against that understanding of rights which is based upon radical selfishness. You can't base rights on radical selfishness without asserting that we are, ourselves, the source of those rights. Once you have denied that, then radical selfishness becomes a contradiction of freedom.
And those who then present to us the paradigm of family life, for instance--gay marriage and so forth. And people always say, "Well, what's wrong with that is that I disapprove of homosexuality." No.
Let's leave that aside for the moment. I may disapprove of homosexuality. But from the point of view of public policy, what's wrong with it is that it is based upon an understanding of human sexuality that is radically selfish. By definition, I am in this relationship in order to gratify myself.
Whereas, what? The foundation of the family is actually an understanding that in that relationship there is a necessary responsibility and obligation which transcends self-gratification in order to connect you with that which is your obligation to the child that may be born of it. You see?
And so we can't accept it. Because if we go down that road we are rejecting the responsible understanding of freedom that is implied in that Declaration.
The reason I go through all this is that people like to pretend that this is all just a bunch of abstract stuff. No, it's not.
If we can once again begin to understand what the Declaration is about, it will provide us with a disciplined way of reasoning out what they tell us we can't reason about. "Oh, those are things that we just have to choose, we just have to disagree about that." That's not true!
It is possible to reason about right and wrong. It is possible to come to rational conclusions about good and bad--so long as we remember the principles which must guide us in our thinking. And then if people stand up and say, "Well, I reject those principles," that's fine.
You can reject those principles, but then don't come whining to me about your rights. Because once you have rejected the Declaration, you have no rights that I must respect!
And so what brings us together here, in the Declaration Foundation, is the effort to return to those principles, to restore a better understanding of the historical context which produced them--to help people to begin, as I was just trying to do, to apply them to specific issues, particularly those which require moral judgment and reasoning.
And in practical ways. We've got all kinds of ideas. And I'm sure that others will come up.
One of the major objectives will be the development of a Declaration Curriculum, in order--whether it's with home schoolers, or people in private schools, or even eventually maybe the government schools--to develop a curriculum that once again focuses on the history of America as the history of our efforts to realize the promise of that Declaration.
And we'll be looking at the legal profession, which has in the course of the last 30 and 40 years rejected the basic understanding of law and human nature that the Declaration implies. Throwing it out! In order to substitute for it a shallow legal positivism that leaves us with no foundation for our claim to liberty except the fact that some justice says it's so. And if he wakes up tomorrow with it stuck in his craw and vomits up our liberty, then we'll have to give it up. But that's not the way it is.
And that means that we must find a way to return to those roots that make it clear that our freedom is not grounded in the agreement we're able to achieve amongst the Justices of the Supreme Court, or amongst all the folks in the United States. It's based upon the acknowledgment that if every single person in this room but me puts their hands together and says I have no rights, I shall still be able to assert those rights, because they come from an authority higher than yours, and higher than mine, which I can rely on through all time in spite of you. In spite of your decision. In spite of your will.
We want to restore to this country that understanding of law which is the ground for our claim of freedom. And in education, and in law, and in public policy, we want to begin to inspire people once again to have the boldness of their declaration convictions.
That will have some implications, some that folks won't like. It won't resolve every issue. But it will certainly, I think, help us to frame those issues in a better way.
Take the issue of school prayer. I often tell people that I believe we could resolve that issue fairly simply. Let's say that we shall set aside at the beginning of every day a moment of silence of all our schools that wish to do so, in which a student will stand in front of the class and recite the famous words of the Declaration. The kids will observe a moment of silence, sit down, and start their day. I'll take it. Some people wouldn't, of course, but it's all in there.
What is a prayer, but that you should acknowledge your dependence upon God for that which is most important in your life. And following that reverent acknowledgment, sit down and do your business. That's what they would do.
It also offers, I think, a practical guide in other respects. We have these big debates over, "Should we teach creation in the schools?"--and so forth and so on. Now I am not going to stand here right now and get into a big debate about who's right and who's wrong. I myself happen to believe that it is slightly more disparaging than I'm willing to tolerate to suggest that my early relatives were monkeys, and stuff, but there are some people in the country who feel comfortable with that. If they wish to lay claim to this lineage, they may. I think I'd want to see that genealogy laid out in real detail. And we all know, or we all ought to know, that in spite of all the claims of evolutionary science they can't lay it out in detail. And this is a problem. And I'm not saying that we simply dismiss it on that basis, but doesn't science require that you examine the evidence?
But we've been scared off from examining the evidence on all sides by people saying, "You can't talk about creation. That's religion." And I look at the Declaration, and it says, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." Now I keep telling my audiences, "How can they tell us this?" You can't get to this equality, unless you go through the creation. And that means that when we're teaching our children about their rights, and the foundation of their rights and liberty, we've got to explain what this word means, or they won't get it.
And so, if somebody comes to you, as the judges have done, and says you can't talk about creation because it's religious, I'll say, "No, it's not religious. This is American. I just want to explain to my son Andrew what the Declaration says. How dare you stop me!"
You know, they wouldn't have an answer for that one. And if they did, know what we ought to do? If they had an answer, and they said, "Well, no, we judges say that you can't teach the Declaration"--that's the moment that you know why they put the impeachment clause in there.
So there again, the Declaration provides us with a foundation for making a judgment in a practical issue where they said there was no way of resolving it. But there is.
And it's more than that. Even in the practical questions: how much power should we give to government? How much power should we keep?
One of the things that I would hope to do--I concentrate in all my speeches on just the first part, because it's so beautiful and stirring and it's the one we know. But if you go through the whole Declaration, you will find even deeper insights.
For instance, Jefferson in there declares at one point that if your government should happen to give evidence of a design to despoil you of your liberty, and it's systematic and it's clear, then you not only have the right, you have the duty to alter or abolish it. Do you remember that? Not only the right, but the duty! It is our citizen duty to alter or abolish a government that is clearly threatening to our rights.
If you think that through, you can see a whole citizen ethics built into that responsibility. You can't make a judgment about whether your government's trying to despoil you of your rights unless you know what your rights are, and where they come from, and how to apply them. So a certain responsibility in education is made clear.
And if you have not only the right, but the obligation to alter or abolish your government--when was the last time you saw somebody able to alter or abolish their government if the government had all the power, and you had none? That means that one of your obligations under the Declaration of Independence is to maintain a power base sufficient to challenge your government should it become abusive. You should NEVER give it up.
And if you look through the Declaration, you not only see the basis for moral principle; you see the basis for prudent judgment.
How much power should we give, and how much power should we keep? How much money should we give, and how much money should we keep? Should we have an educational system that prepares our children to think for themselves so that they can make judgments, critical judgments, about their government, or should we have one that prepares them to be the passive subjects of government largesse, and government power, and government domination?
The Declaration makes it clear what our responsibility is. And that means that it's not only a document that deals with moral principle. It's a document that deals with the practical truths that we have to apply if we want to remain a free people.
You see, I would like to use that document as a basis, as a kind of gateway that will lead our people to walk back into that understanding of politics which, I believe--you look at the broad sweep of human history--was the most enlightened ever achieved by practical statesmen.
Oh, it's one thing to sit in the closet and write your fancy philosophic tomes--and I would have to say that I think there were some philosophers who probably achieved deeper insight into the real nature of political things than our Founders did. But guess what: they weren't able to do. They weren't able to lift one little finger to translate that wonderful understanding into reality.
But then God, in his Providence--and that's what our Founders called it. See, people will say, "You're being religious"--no, I'm not. I'm quoting from the Declaration: "With a firm reliance on Divine Providence." When I refer to Divine Providence, I'm quoting from the Declaration. That means that in my political rhetoric, I have the right to refer to Divine Providence. You understand that? They can't criticize me.
I believe that that Divine Providence actually opened up this wonderful moment in which for what seems, based on our knowledge, to be the only time in human history that prayer, that prayer that is presented by Socrates in Plato's Republic--it was realized for that brief moment at the beginning of our history. That prayer that, for just one moment, philosophers should be kings. Those who cared about truth, and about wisdom, should also have the power to put some little part of it into effect.
And we are the beneficiaries of that moment. The Declaration states the principles of their insight, and we must use it as our gateway to rediscovering the depth and meaning of it. We have too long now been taken in by the shallow social scientists and others who have offered us their new alternatives to that understanding.
But look around you. Look at the streets filled with violence, look at the schools filled with fear, look at the new generations fast losing their way, and tell me whether you think their wisdom works.
And then compare to that a nation born in a war against the greatest military power on earth, sustained through a crisis of judgment, and spirit, and soul, that tore the nation apart and put it back together again--a nation that was able to survive wars that nearly destroyed the very fabric of the world's civilization, and come out on the other side of it, armed with a thunderbolt we did not use because we had the wisdom to understand that human dignity was not our gift, but the gift of God. And tell me whether the fabric of that history, the greatness built upon it, is a greatness we should surrender for the pygmy theories that have dominated us for the last 40 years. The nation has succeeded; they have failed.
We must return to the foundations of our success.
I would like to challenge all of you people. We wanted to gather some folks together here because--well, you know, I think that starting an enterprise like this is like a marriage, in a way.
Why do we have marriages? These days, the way people talk, you would think that you have marriages in order to gratify the personal feelings of the people getting married--make them feel good and all of that. And it hopefully does make them feel good, but that's not why. You know, I mean, at this rate--if that were the reason that we had marriages, then, you know, when everything started to get a little gloomy, we would just declare another marriage and everybody would come.
Actually, you should only do it once. And you do it once because it symbolizes something. It symbolizes the fact that those who care about the parties involved are going to stand there and publicly attest to their commitment to one another, and pledge, in a way, that they shall be part of that commitment--that they shall understand it, respect it, support it, in the good times and the bad. It is not a way of showing respect and gratifying the passions of the parties involved. It is actually a way of showing respect for the institution that they are about to commit themselves to for a lifetime.
And that is what we are gathered here to do. Not respect only, though, for the Declaration Foundation, but respect, more so, for the truths to which it shall be dedicated. Because I kinda feel that you've got to attach yourself to the truth. And then you just hold on, wherever it goes. It'll be a wild ride, but you will end up in the right place.
And I'm glad that you have come here together to join us in this first birthday party for the Declaration Foundation. We would ask, if you could, that you commit yourself in the way of help and support; that you let us know who you are so that we can keep you abreast of how this child grows; that you spread the word to those who you know so that they will understand what we are about; that you will be willing to offer us your advice, point out opportunities, show us the needs that may exist for you where we can be of help in promoting these common ideas and ideals, to which we are dedicated not just as people in this room, but as Americans. And that's why we're here, and I'm glad that you came.
And that's why we will continue in this work in the Foundation. It is something that I hope will be a permanent result of the little work I tried to do in the last year and a half. Part of that work, as you know, was aimed at narrow political purposes, which I believe we achieved, in concert with others. The Republican Party is still a pro-life party today.
I have to invite our attention, though, and your hopes, to another result. A result that, like Moses, we shall not be there to see. We have, as has every generation of Americans, the privilege of looking, like Moses, into the promised land. But you know, given the nature of that promise, we shall never live to get there. For, this is a promise that is always being kept and never quite fulfilled: a promise that each generation shall have to renew, and respect, and rebuild.
And the Declaration Foundation, I hope, will be a way for us to pledge ourselves to that renewal--for us to engage in that rebuilding--so that we can pass on intact to those children we see, and to those children we shall never see, that heritage of freedom which is our real responsibility. So that, when we shut our eyes in the sleep of death and go to seek the Lord, we will be able to look back on our role as citizens knowing that we did what we could to make sure that this would still be a nation, in the best sense, free, and in the best sense, whole, and true to its beginnings. If we can do that, then I think we shall have done all we can do, as citizens.
And the rest is up to God.