This week’s holiday celebrates the purity of democracy in America, but last week’s Supreme Court decisions demonstrated its complexity. The protection of marriage benefits for same-gendered couples was, in Governor Deval Patrick’s words, “a victory for America.” The overturning of part of the Voting Rights Act was, in the words of US Representative John Lewis, “a dagger in the heart” of what he and other civil rights leaders fought for. As rights were expanded in one direction, they were constricted in another. What would Thomas Jefferson say?
Especially on the Fourth of July, the Declaration of Independence is hallowed as the founding American scripture. President John Kennedy famously honored its author at a dinner for Nobel laureates by saying that never had so much genius gathered at the White House “since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Others had made contributions to the Declaration, but Jefferson gave the revolutionary statement its immortal cadence and content. The appeal to God — “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” — made human rights a matter of divine right. The holding of “truths to be self-evident” cloaked truth itself in an absolutism not to be denied. The Declaration, in “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,” and with its “firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence,” promotes American exceptionalism.