Alan Keyes
God-endowed rights: what constitutes America's greatness?
'In the seed of principle our nation was conceived'
By Alan Keyes
March 7, 2016

Greatness – like change – is an alluring word that promises everything, and nothing at all. Therefore, both are among the demagogue's favorite buzzwords. Without knowing what's involved, many people get taken in by them. To avoid this, we must raise the simple question that encourages people to think things through. This column attempts to do so.

Throughout the history of the world, there have been great nations and empires. Sometimes the word refers to their size, and particularly to the extent of their conquests. But these attributes are themselves valued mainly as an indication of power. Though the ancient Greek city-states were none of them equal in size and extent to the empires erected by the Romans or the Mongol rulers of China, they nonetheless loom large in the history of mankind, thanks to the enormous influence their virtues and intellectual achievements had on countries and empires that later came to be renowned for their great conquests or achievements.

On account of America's size and the power it achieved in the last century among all the nations of the earth, it's tempting to think that size and power define the greatness of the United States. But the founders of the United States spoke and acted as if their country were already of great importance to the history of humankind, even when it consisted of 13 sparsely inhabited states that counted for little or nothing among the great powers of its time. They felt that its exceptional destiny lay in the enormous import of the experiment in democratic self-government that had already begun when those states were still dependent colonies.

Alexander Hamilton reflected this sense of responsibility in Federalist No. 1 when he wrote:

"[I]t seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."

Madison reflected it as well in Federalist No. 39, when he spoke of the founders' "honorable rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government." That determination derived from respect for the fundamental principles of the American Revolution. Those principles were succinctly summarized in the Declaration of Independence, which defined the justice required for good government in terms of God-endowed unalienable rights, rights that all human beings are, by God's authority, equally obliged to respect in themselves and in their dealings with others.

Instructed by the founders, I have always taken it for granted that this sense of America's vocation on behalf of humanity established the scale against which the greatness of our nation must be measured. Americans are therefore not called as a people to live in service to themselves alone, aggrandizing their territory, power, and prosperity as other "great" nations have been wont to do in the past. Measured according to the seed of principle in which our nation was conceived, the greatness we are called to achieve must be viewed in light of a standard appropriate to human nature itself. Thus, it is only as we prove the potential of humanity for right, justice, and goodwill that we truly realize our identity as a people.

Because it involves the vocation of humanity, America's task has invited the participation of people throughout the world. We have therefore become a nation of nations. As a result, the challenge of our survival as a nation epitomizes the challenge of survival facing humanity itself. We did not rise to pre-eminence in the world because of our power and wealth. Our power and wealth reflected the fact that our pre-eminent purpose encompassed the common purpose of humanity.

On that account, the people drawn to become part of our community were not asked simply to surrender their identity in order to become Americans. Rather, they were asked to recognize in that identity humanity's common aims, its common passions, its common sense of right and decency, as expressed in the principles of America's founding. These are like the grains of sand around which the pearls of different ethnic, racial, and even religious characteristics develop into the peoples that inhabit earth's various climes and regions.

By conscious deliberation and the aid of Divine Providence, every feature of the overall constitution of self-government in the United States reflected the subtle complexity of this ultimate identity, in which we are seeking to express the natural complexity of humanity itself. "Out of many, one" has been the pithy slogan of our union. But whether in the federal structure that preserves a variety of states in that union, or in its respect for each individual's responsibility conscientiously to fulfill the obligations by which we are bound to God and other people, America's union was never intended to be a homogenized result. Rather, it is supposed to respect the capacity for freedom that is part of the substance that informs our nature.

Out of many, one. Yet, nonetheless, that one preserves the different ones that express the infinite variety which is, at every moment, the potential of the whole that all of its individual parts comprise, taken together. This means that sometimes we must live in the unsettled region between what is and what might be. But it also means that as we engage in the task of exploring that region, we become more aware of the true extent of our common humanity, and more willing to see in one another, despite some differences, the fulfillment of its meaning, its goodness, its universal destiny.

For this to be more than idle speculation, two rules must be observed: The first requires that we respect the differences that distinguish us, one from another, so that each one can be decently and justly served. The second is that we respect the whole by which these differences are informed, so that on the whole, peace prevails, preserving our existence in common. Thus the "laws of nature and of nature's God" are succinctly summarized for our humanity. They epitomize the standard of its existence. All that is left is for us to think it through. To meet the challenge of our present crisis, we must take care to do so.

To see more articles by Dr. Keyes, visit his blog at and his commentary at and

© Alan Keyes


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Alan Keyes

Dr. Keyes holds the distinction of being the only person ever to run against Barack Obama in a truly contested election – featuring authentic moral conservatism vs. progressive liberalism – when they challenged each other for the open U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in 2004... (more)


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