Almost 240 years ago, the founders of our nation had a common philosophy, both of the nature of humanity and the limitations of government. Risking their lives to challenge the established order of divinely-ordained monarchies, the Continental Congress wrote in the Declaration of Independence that government exists to secure the rights that originate from natural law on the basis of creation, and that legitimate government exists to recognize and protect those rights, not to overpower them:
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[.]
This view of governance turned politics on its head. The framers of the Declaration may have struggled to put their philosophy into practice, trying the Articles of Confederation first and finally producing a central government with some authority in the Constitution, and they may have failed to address slavery and women’s rights, but the Constitution itself set the framework for those fights later. It put boundaries on where government could reach, and more importantly where it could not. The Bill of Rights were not a condescension of specific rights to people and states, but the enforceable limits of the power of government in regards to rights that people have simply from their nature as sons and daughters of their Creator.
Do we still share that view widely in the US today? Matt Lewis says no, and it’s at the heart of our political divide:
This might sound like a pedantic point to make, but nearly all of our political discord comes down to fundamental differences in our worldviews. Two very good people can start out with two very different philosophies of life and inevitably come to two very different conclusions on a nearly innumerable amount of problems. Sometimes the consequences are profound. And that’s the case here. Rejection of this foundational principle of God-given law would inexorably lead someone to come to vastly different conclusions about any number of things compared to someone like me who embraces this premise. When liberals and conservatives differ over whether or not the state has the right to usurp this or that right, dig deep enough, and you will often find the root of the disagreement lies here.
I believe very strongly that our rights come from God. And I believe nearly as strongly that the implications of believing that our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are granted by the state are potentially catastrophic. Ideas have consequences, and while some might see quibbling over such esoteric and grandiose ideas to be a waste of time, the truth is that where one comes down on such fundamental questions will likely predetermine where one comes down on a wide range of modern-day “hot-button” issues. When you consider how much of the current political debate hinges on fights about individual liberty and the size and scope of government, this makes sense.
Set aside religion and consider this: If our fundamental rights are merely granted by the state, then they can be taken away by the state. What is more, the state would have no moral compunction not to rob us of our rights. The state is not particularly moral or special or better than people. The state is people. If they don’t have some larger, higher moral code that guides them, then assumptions about what constitutes the “good” are, at least to some degree, arbitrary. Absent an immutable standard, why wouldn’t the law of the jungle rule? In nature, predators prey on the weak. Can we honestly convince ourselves that people are better than that? Some are, sure. But many are not.
Without an absolute law that transcends the whims of man, the very concept of “rights” metastasizes into a definition having more to do with the current and often capricious preference of the majority. Oppressed minorities have long found comfort (and, in fact, seized the moral high ground) by pointing out that there is a greater law, a universal sense of right and wrong, that transcends the will of the majority.
I wholeheartedly concur. So did the framers of both foundational documents of our republic, who mistrusted “democracy” in its pure sense and tried to keep it at bay with the system of government found in every state and in the federal government. We use democratic procedures to elect people to a representative republic, one that is limited in scope by the Constitution (and by both the federal and state constitutions at the lower level).
The combinations of an enforceable Constitution and the deliberative nature of the structure of our republic keeps our society from imposing its will by mob rule. Many nations have constitutions, both written or traditional, that carry little weight, and most of those only use them for window dressing on tyranny. Our tradition remained vibrant because we believed that our rights didn’t come from condescension by politicians, but from God and “unalienable” by human action, regardless of the power and corruption that may be presented. Our Constitution protects against both, however imperfectly, and will — until we stop believing in the philosophy that fuels its power.
If we lose that, and allow the Constitution to become merely an old document with no legal or moral force on the basis of majority whim, we lose the Republic, and we lose our national soul. That is the danger in viewing rights as an allocation from other men as opposed to our birthright as created sons and daughters of God.
Jazz may have more on this later, so stay tuned.