To twenty-first-century ears, aspects of President Jefferson’s letter sound shockingly condescending—in keeping with convention and Captain Hendrick’s manner of address, President Jefferson refers to Captain Hendrick as “my son” and his tribe as “my children,” for instance. Still, compared to many earlier and later European and American responses to the Native Americans, Thomas Jefferson’s letter is remarkable in its open-handedness and its recognition of the Native Americans’ shared humanity. His words are suffused with liberality and even hospitality. That generosity and promise, though, entirely depended on Captain Hendrick’s tribe giving up and rejecting their distinct way of life and living instead under the foreign laws and customs of the young American republic.
President Jefferson’s letter, in other words, implicitly assumes an antagonistic relationship between difference and equality. In so doing he reveals a generally unspoken premise that has often plagued many of the various movements that have, over the past two centuries, sought equality for the unequal and voices for the voiceless. This mindset suggests that in order to have equality you cannot have difference. Indeed, sameness and equality become indistinguishable. As a result, the work of ensuring equality transforms into the task of erasing difference.
This assumption dominates the thinking and actions of other European colonists and American settlers who sought a place for Native Americans, both before and after President Jefferson. The attitude can be found, too, among those fighting for the equality of Jews in nineteenth-century Germany. And, despite an abundance of multicultural language embracing diversity, it constitutes the unspoken premise of advocates for equal rights in debates that rage today.I go on to argue that, although the modern ideal of equality has roots in Christianity, the language of "equality" insufficiently expresses the Christian doctrine of infinite human worth. Christianity provides an alternate way of embracing difference through a universal recognition of human dignity--rooted in the Imago Dei and realized by incorporation into the body of Christ. Properly understood in all its implications, this doctrine challenges both liberals and conservatives to reconsider the way they think through difference in human society. Although Christians have often failed to live out this ideal fully, at times in Christian history that promise has been a reality.
You can read the whole thing at The Imaginative Conservative.