The First Great Awakening supplied the assumptions that Jefferson and the American founders relied on during the Revolution. Remember that Jefferson asserted his proposition of human equality as both “self-evident” and a gift from God: we are endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights. Indeed there is no other source for such rights. But how could Jefferson have so confidently claimed that his doctrine was “self-evident”? He could because he knew that most Americans already believed it. He was, as he put it, merely giving expression to something already in the American grain. John Adams later wrote, “What do we mean by the American Revolution? The war? That was no part of the Revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people … a change in their religious sentiments.” Those religious sentiments were forged in the fiery sermons of the First Great Awakening.
The Second Great Awakening, which started in the early nineteenth century and coursed through New England and New York and then through the interior of the country, left in its wake the temperance movement, the movement for women’s suffrage, and most important, the abolitionist movement. It was the religious fervor of men like Charles Finney, the Presbyterian lawyer who became president of Oberlin College, that drove the abolitionist cause and set off the chain of events that produced the Civil War, the end of slavery, and America’s “new birth of freedom.”
Fast-forward now to the twentieth century, and consider the Reverend Martin Luther King’s famous claim that he was submitting a promissory note to America and demanding that it be cashed.9 A Southern segregationist might have asked, “What promissory note? What’s he talking about?” King was appealing to the Declaration of Independence. Remarkably, this champion of freedom was resting his case on a proclamation issued two hundred years earlier by a Southern slaveowner! Yet King, in doing this, was appealing to the principle he and Jefferson shared, the principle of the equal worth of all human beings. Both men, the twentieth-century pastor and the eighteenth- century planter, were reflecting the long reach of Christianity.
Or recall King’s famous dream of a day when human beings will be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Many writers—and I am one ofthem—have in the past interpreted this as a call to meritocracy: we should be judged on our intelligence and talents. But this is not what King says. He hopes for a day when we will be judged by the content of our character. Not intellectual achievement, but ethical achievement, seems to be what matters to King. Here, too, we see the strong echo of Christianity, which assesses human worth not through power and possessions but through the virtue that we integrate into our daily lives.
As Nietzsche suggested in the quotation at the beginning of this chapter, the Christian doctrine of human equality is also the basis for all modern doctrines of human rights. True, today we have a host of rights doctrines from secular sources, but you only have to prod them a little to uncover their Christian foundations. Philosopher John Rawls argued that we should devise a social system by imagining ourselves behind a “veil of ignorance” in which we have no idea whether we will be smart or stupid, rich or poor.” An interesting concept, but why should we place ourselves behind this hypothetical veil? Why should we negate our current privileges?