This essay is excerpted from "Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World" (Henry Holt, February 2017), by Charles J. Chaput, archbishop of Philadelphia


We hold these truths to be self-evident: All men are created equal. They're endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. These rights include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Those are wonderful words. Most Americans know them, or at least once learned them, from childhood. As a national creed, these beliefs from the Declaration of Independence have enduring character and beauty. They're imprinted on our national memory. And rightly so.

Too bad they're not true. Or more accurately, they're true, but only in a particular biblical sense. One of the facts of life is that people are not equal in intelligence, beauty, wealth, social skills, athletic ability, physical health, family influence, potential earnings, or access to the best schools. The list of life's inequities is long, and always part of the human experience. Life isn't fair. And this is so even in revolutionary societies based on egalitarian ideals. The old ruling class may end up without their heads. But new hierarchies always take their place.

This isn't news. Most people know that differences and inequalities are inevitable in the real world. So they sort themselves, or get sorted by events or other people, into categories of merit and influence. Whether these distinctions are formal and obvious, or invisible and officially denied, is irrelevant. Life doesn't treat people equally. The poor and infirm are living witnesses. And today, the natural-rights sentiments (including equality) that moved the nation's Founders in 1776 - as great as they still are - appear false and meaningless or superstitious to many of the leading minds that now shape our political imagination.

When key scientists and scholars argue, as some now do, for human cloning, or the legitimacy of killing disabled newborns, or breeding children for spare parts on a mass scale, they may be morally vile. But in a world with no higher purpose, they're not illogical or inconsistent.

People are equal in one sense only, but it's a decisive sense deeper than any simple equations of worth. Think of it this way: Does a mother really love each irreplaceable child she bears "equally" - or in some much more profound and intimate way? Can a good father really weigh the "comparative value" of the young lives that come from his own flesh and blood?

Our dignity is rooted in the God who made us. His love, shared in every parent's experience, is infinite and unique for each of us as individual persons - because each son and daughter is unrepeatable. Only God's love guarantees our worth. And therein lies our equality. Nothing else has God's permanence. In him, our inequalities become not cruelties of fate, but openings to love, support, and "complete" each other in his name.

For the Christian, human beings are not sovereign individuals. Not interchangeable reasoning and consuming units. Not math equations. Our differences invite us to depend on and help each other. And this fact should shape every aspect of our lives.

A skeptic might call this sort of thinking an alibi for living with chronic evils. Not so. Nothing absolves Christians from the duties of justice. Equal treatment under the law is vital to a decent society. The poor may always be with us, as Scripture says. But that doesn't excuse us from working as hard as we can to make our country a worthy home for all our citizens. The Gospel should move us to change the world for the better, not bless it as it is.

That Christian restlessness, or leaven, is the engine of the civilization we call the West. . . . This is why even the harshest critics of biblical faith often see liberal democracies as a form of secularized Christianity. Humanitarian compassion, embodied in the welfare state, is the virtue of charity drained of its God content.

At its best, democracy works from a biblically derived belief in every person's value. With every citizen equal in the work of self-governance, the state is more stable because everyone has a stake in the common project. And democratic discussion advances an understanding of people's different needs and beliefs. This encourages realism and self-restraint. Or so the reasoning goes.

The trouble is, democracy has flaws. Big ones. . . . Democracy ensures the rights of the individual. But it does so by weakening all other relationships that have a claim on the citizen's will. That includes family, churches, and similar connections.

Democracy flatters the citizen's independence. But it also undermines his self-confidence and deepens his actual dependence by isolating him. How that happens is simple:

The individual is now cut loose from the communities that formed him, anchored him, and stood between him and civil authority. Power flows to the state. And the state grows by providing new services and protections to fill in the gaps left by former relationships. American politics over the past 60 years is a textbook case of the process.