Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Roots of our Rights

Amid the barbecues, fireworks, and summer vacations, it might be worthwhile to reflect for a few moments on what exactly happened to the world on July 4, 1776. For the first time in human history, an attempt was being made to overthrow an existing government and create a new one on the basis of a political theory. History gives the illusion of inevitability, and so 230 years later it seems virtually inconceivable that the grand political experiment might have failed. And yet it might have. Eleven years later, the French had their own revolution, based on largely the same premises as was the American one; that one succeeded in overthrowing its government, but ended in the Reign of Terror and the dictatorship of Napoleon. Other revolutions have come and gone since then, most notably the Russian Revolution in 1917. That of the United States has produced the longest-lasting stable political structure in the world at this time.

The crucial section of the American Declaration of Independence is a mere three sentences:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The average American, if asked to paraphrase these words, would probably offer something like this: "Everybody's basically the same. We all have the right to live and do as we please, and if the government interferes with that, then we have the right to get rid of it and elect another." This represents not merely a dumbing-down of what Jefferson wrote, but a crucial misunderstanding, not least because most people couldn't articulate what it is they mean by a "right" or on what basis it is thought that individuals have them.

Begging to differ with the Founders, these propositions were not in the least "self-evident." The aristocracy and monarchy of England (and the rest of Europe) were based on the assumption that all people were, in fact, not "created equal." The concept of "rights" was invented as a part of the "social contract" political philosophies of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Rejecting the "divine right of kings," these philosophers went back to a hypothetically original "state of nature" in which human beings coexisted without any sort of governing institutions. "Rights" (i.e., the ability and moral authority to do anything) were inherent to individuals, and to all individuals equally. This was the cornerstone of Enlightenment political thought. Rather than rulers having all the rights, and their subjects gaining only such rights as the ruler deemed permissible, the individuals comprising societies had the rights, which they ceded to the government only insofar as doing so benefitted the individuals in that society. The government has no rights except those ceded by the individuals comprising the society; as a result, proper government is that which derives from the "consent of the governed."

Where, in turn, did Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau get this focus on the individual and the equality of all individuals? It pretty clearly derives from the Protestant Reformation, in which a relationship to God is asserted to be the province of the individual, not a Church hierarchy; the "priesthood of all believers" was asserted in place of a class of priests that took Christ's mediatorial position; and the Bible was translated into the vernacular so that all could read and interpret for themselves. Thus, the dignity of the individual was recognized and the hierarchical nature of feudal society was undermined. If I have the same access to God as the King, then why should the King rule over me, other than by my consent and for my benefit?

It was this dignity of the individual that the colonists were trying to preserve when they came to this continent, fleeing from oppression and religious persecution. This dignity of the individual was what made the rightness of a radical break from England seem "self-evident." It has become all too "self-evident," I fear, to the point where we forget in our political discourses that it is God who grants us any rights we have. Some are radical individualists, and need to be reminded that not anything and everything we desire can be construed as a "right," because we don't have the moral authority to obtain anything we want. But others need to be reminded that ultimately it is not the US Constitution that grants us our rights, and not every right need be spelled out in its text (hence the ninth and tenth amendments). What rights we do have are given to us by God; those of us blessed to live in the United States need to be thankful that we live in a nation whose foundations recognize our dignity as individuals, and prayerful that we can continue to "live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness" (1 Tim. 2:1-2).

1 comment:

  1. Hi Keith,

    Good stuff there. Examination of the idea of "rights" in light of the crucial three sentences from the Declaration makes clear the founders' thinking. Thinking which, I might add, would today make lots of people of various political persuasions nervous.

    The "certain inalienable rights" which we lay claim to come to us as an endowment from our Creator.

    The job of just government then becomes one of securing those rights, for ourselves and our posterity. The government which fails that task has failed its very reason for being, and if it no longer holds the consent of the governed, ought to be abolished, so say the founders.

    That brings two questions to my mind: First, did the founders really mean what they said? Did they truly believe in an all-powerful, yet loving God Who is the source of human rights and dignity? If they did, the "separation of church and state" folks have a real dilemma to contend with, for apart from God, they have no rights whatsoever, for how can one claim the gift while denying the existence of the Giver? As I wrote years ago in a college term paper, if we are nothing more than the most dominantly evolved species of primate, why shouldn't we conquer, pillage, murder, and rape as we please. You say you have rights--based on what? In a Hobbesian state of nature, might makes right, and unless you're the mightiest and most terrifying, life will indeed be nasty, brutish, and short.

    On the other hand, what if the founders were lying. What if they were just a bunch of intellectual colonial entreprenuers who figured that they could make more money if they didn't have to share profits with King George III, and used religious language to get the populace on their side. If so, we Christians living in America have a problem. Our so-called National Christian Heritage is nothing but a house of cards.

    I tend to believe the first scenario, that the founders did indeed believe what they said. If not, they went to an awful lot of trouble to make their lies sound convincing. Another point favoring that view is that their use of scripture seems genuine; the feel of their words when read certainly gives the appearance that such usage arose from both familiarity and belief. I'm sure we can all think of instances when a politician of either party has used scripture or religious imagery in a speech and it seemed completely contrived; both out of character and out of place.

    The second question is more immediate, and perhaps less theoretical: What if a government has failed miserably in its task to secure the rights of its citizens, yet still has the consent of the governed? What if the bread and circuses of entitlement spending and reality TV has lulled the population into a false sense of security? For when they say "peace and safety," then will sudden destruction come upon them.

    I don't use that last sentence lightly. The feeble economic growth we do have is built on credit, and both major parties want to destroy the middle class that pays the bills, one through taxation allegedly needed to "save" vital government programs, and the other through overseas outsourcing of middle class jobs to improve the corporate bottom line. Meanwhile, the hundreds of billions of dollars that could have bought us at very least the on-ramp to the highway of energy independence are being spent on what appears to be a "Great Society" program, but one where all the good government jobs are in Iraq and involve the very real prospect of sudden nasty death.

    One can make a coherent argument that securing "the pursuit of happiness" means securing means of prosperity and that economic growth requires secure trade routes. I imagine some similar justification was used way back when as the basis of sending the Navy and Marines out against the Barbary Pirates. One could even argue the same point in favor of securing and stabilizing the world's oil supply, and it might make sense if that was what we were actually doing. If we did, as some on the left accuse, go to war for oil, I can't imagine a less sensible way to have gone about it. In my more morose moments I find myself wondering if our overseas adventurism is just something designed to occupy our attention while our civilization teeters on the brink of collapse. Kind of like when Pres. Clinton ordered air strikes against Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction (apparently they did exist in 1998) while the House was drawing up Articles of Impeachment, but on a much grander scale.

    Now I'm just rambling, and since despair and rage are both sins, I'll stop. Maranatha, even so, come Lord Jesus.

    Grace and Peace, Dave