Posts Tagged ‘equality’

Can a statement be true and untrue at the same time?  Yes, it can.  Take Thomas Jefferson’s famous “self-evident” statement that “all men are created equal”.  In the context that Jefferson was referring to when he was addressing the King of England, he meant that the colonists in America did not recognize that the King or any other members of the English royalty had any right by birth to rule over them.  In that sense everyone was equal.

However, in the literal sense, we are all born decidedly unequal. This is evident, more and more, as discoveries are made concerning genetic diseases.  Some of us are fortunate, and we are born, more or less healthy.  Others, less fortunate, suffer from inherited disease from the moment they are born.  Still others have inherited diseases that do not manifest themselves immediately but only appear later in life, such as certain forms of cancer.  All of these susceptibilities for particular diseases can be found in one place – our DNA.  Now, as more and more breakthroughs are made in biotech, companies like Myriad Genetics are able to create DNA tests to determine whether we are likely, or perhaps certain, to develop certain diseases as we get older.

The good thing about having the ability to analyze our DNA and see if we are likely to contract certain diseases is that some form of treatment can sometimes be started before the disease even appears.  We are about to enter a new age of medicine where newborn infants are routinely screened for a host of genetic diseases. Lifesaving steps can be taken while the disease still lies dormant in the baby’s DNA.  This, of course, is only the first step into a new realm of biology that will soon create a whole new set of questions that must be answered by those who would set our ethical bearings.

For example, it is well known that some people are born with bodies that produce mostly “fast twitch” muscle tissue in their legs, while others produce mostly “slow twitch” muscle tissue.  The fast twitch people are natural sprinters while the slow twitchers are more suited to running marathons.  Let’s suppose a child enters high school and decides to try out for the track team.  Let’s suppose the child wants to train for and run the 100 meters race; however, let’s also suppose that his DNA analysis shows that he will never be a competitive sprinter, no matter how hard he trains.  What should the track coach do?

Let’s suppose that, at some point in time, a structure in our DNA is discovered that promotes certain types of intellectual activity, such as music or art or mathematics.  It’s not impossible. There are well known cases of geniuses in the arts, like Mozart, who created magnificent music at a very early age.  Could this astonishing capability have all been taught by his father?  Maybe, but maybe not.  So, what do we do if more and more DNA research shows that we are all born with different gifts and capabilities, as well as different weaknesses.  Do we make use of such information starting from an early age or do we pretend that it isn’t real because we are all created equal?

We will soon have to contend with the fact that Jefferson’s statement was a statement of equality of rights and not literal physical or mental equality.  We have already entered the age when we can predict with high degrees of certainty which people will contract which diseases, just by examining their DNA.  The question we are about to face is this: do we hold on to “equality” with a religious fervor and refuse to go where no man has gone before, or do we boldly look at the facts encoded in our DNA, accept what is written there, and then decide to use that information for the benefit of all?

And the biggest question of all might be: Who will be the Decider?

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When we learned U.S. history in the eighth grade we learned Thomas Jefferson’s words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”  Fine words, indeed. Today, most of us simply accept that these words mean that we all have equal opportunity in America and that we are all entitled to be treated equally.  Fine words too, I suppose, but that wasn’t what Thomas Jefferson was talking about.  The Declaration of Independence, which begins with these words, was addressed to the King of England and it was making a specific point.  Thomas Jefferson and his compatriots were clearly saying that they did not recognize the right of the King of England to be their ruler because they did not believe that one could be born with the right to rule. All men were created equal at birth – noble birth was a fiction invented to benefit the family members of the King and the King himself.

Thomas Jefferson was not a member of an organized religion and, perhaps, it was easier for him to write this than some of the more religious members of the colonies.  For the most part the original English colonists had arrived seeking religious freedom in America.  For example, the Pilgrims, a group of Puritans, who had arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 had fled religious persecution in England. These colonists would certainly have disagreed with Jefferson because, as Puritans, they were followers of the teachings of John Calvin, the French theologian who took over the leadership of the Protestant Reformation after the death of Martin Luther.  It was Calvin’s teaching of predestination that, for the Puritans, would have led them to strongly disagree with Jefferson.  It is Calvin’s teaching that men are born either saved or damned.  He taught that nothing men do in their lives can change their fate because God had made up his mind before they were born.  The Puritans believed that one way to recognize whether someone was saved, i.e. they were a member of the Elect, was to see if they were successful in life. Those who were financially successful were obviously saved while those who were poor and miserable were obviously among the damned.  This was the origin of the work ethic in New England – everyone wanted to prove that they were among the Elect.

It is this teaching, among others, that led the Church of England to adopt Calvinism, instead of Lutheranism, as the set of teachings that informs their outlook on the world.  The King of England was also the head of the Church of England and therefore the American rebellion against the King was also, implicitly, a rebellion against a core teaching of the English church.  Jefferson would have no trouble with this rebellion against Calvinistic thought, but it is likely that some of the other, more religious, members of the rebels had to perform some mental gymnastics to be able to say that they really believed that all men are created equal.  The “all men are created equal” sentiment has become a secular notion these days. The meaning has conveniently been morphed to connote equality in civil rights, thus allowing many people, whose philosophy of life derives from the teachings of John Calvin, to continue to believe that we are not at all equal when we are born.

Where is the Pope when you need him?  John Calvin’s unfair and non-Christian teachings were never condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. Unlike Martin Luther who was reviled and excommunicated, the Roman Church in some ways admired Calvin and even compared him to Saint Augustine.  The thing the Roman Church has never realized is that this single insidious teaching of non-equality at birth has, at times, infected our national leaders  to the great detriment of our citizens.  I’ll have more to say on this in my next blog, but the question I wonder about is this: is it possible for our government leaders to disassociate themselves from their religious convictions when they make the important decisions that affect each of us?

I think the answer is no, and with that simple observation we can begin to understand a great deal about our present government and its actions.

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