This year, for the first time in American history, Juneteenth was celebrated as a federal holiday. Upon signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, President Joe Biden said that “the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans didn’t mark the end of America’s work to deliver on the promise of equality; it only marked the beginning.”
The term “equality” has become commonplace in our rallying cries for various political and social movements. Yet we rarely pause to consider what the word actually means. More importantly, we tend to neglect the ways in which religion shapes our view of political equality.
First, let’s clarify what we mean by political equality. In his essay, “Membership,” C.S. Lewis summarizes political equality as the practice of “treating human persons (in judicious defiance of the observed facts) as if they were all the same kind of thing.” Despite different skills, different morals, different opinions, different heights, different sizes, and different fingerprints, people are the same under the law. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
But what is the Christian view of equality?
Genesis 1:27 says that “God created mankind in his own image.” On one hand, humans are elevated above the rest of creation because they are endowed with the divine image. On the other hand, the divine image is shared indiscriminately by all mankind.
But does this mean that people want to be treated just like everybody else?
Imagine how disappointing it would be if everyone in your family gave you the same gift on your birthday, or if a friend gave you the same Christmas gift they gave to everybody else. It would feel cold and impersonal because we have a fundamental longing to be known, not just as a variation in the species of homo sapiens, but as a unique and irreplaceable person. In that sense, we do want to be treated differently. We want to be treated as ourselves.
The pursuit of political equality will always be necessary because, in reality, people do act unjustly. As Psalm 14:3 says, “All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” Because people tend to act wickedly, the law can and should punish wicked behavior. But this is only the first step toward a virtuous society. As Lewis explains: “The function of equality is purely protective. It is medicine, not food. By treating human persons (in judicious defiance of the observed facts) as if they were all the same kind of thing, we avoid innumerable evils. But it is not on this that we were made to live.”
Modern philosophies fail to recognize that political equality needs an explanation for why humans have intrinsic and equal value. Society teaches generation after generation that we are nothing more than a jumble of highly evolved microbes and carnal urges and then simultaneously expects us to be people of reason and virtue. This approach is grievously mistaken. We must look outside ourselves if we want to find a standard by which we can all be judged as equally worthy.
“The infinite value of each human soul is not a Christian doctrine,” writes Lewis. “God did not die for man because of some value He perceived in him. The value of each human soul considered simply in itself, out of relation to God, is zero … He [God] loved us not because we were lovable, but because He is Love … If there is equality it is in His love, not in us.”
Political equality is a noble end that falls short of creating a virtuous society. The great commandment of Christ is not “love all your neighbors equally,” but “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). This statement is painfully personal. It demands that we not merely treat others as we treat all others, but that we love them with as much bias as we love ourselves.