The Constitution, our dear Constitution, did not give us our rights. Our rights came from God and they are inalienable rights. The Constitution created the government to protect our God-given and unalienable rights.
Thus Sarah Palin in her speech earlier this month in Missouri, at the “Win America Back Conference.”
Though Palin’s words received the usual uncomprehending and comically overwrought response from at least one leftwing critic, the statement hardly represents a novel departure for a conservative politician. Even that little inalienable vs. unalienable problem goes all the way back to the Founding. More important, in recent years acceptance of the premise that “our rights come from God, not the government” has been become almost definitional for American conservatism. Search for the phrase and close variations on the internet, and you’ll find pointed, high-profile utterances, virtually word for word, from Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, Newt Gingrich, Jim DeMint, Paul Ryan, and George W. Bush. For Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Howard Dean, and Nancy Pelosi, the same searches will tend to turn up conservatives reacting to whatever latest leftwing heresy. You may have to go all the way back to John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address to find a leading Democrat who could voice the idea clearly, and seem to mean it.
The concept is, of course, embodied in one of the most important single sentences in American history – arguably in all of human history:
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.
In the speech that first brought Barack Obama to national attention in 2004 (the “no red states and blue states” speech), he did at least recite the sentence: It didn’t boil his mouth away, but that may be because he sought to interpret it as a mere generalized endorsement of egalitarianism – as though, in writing the lines, Thomas Jefferson had been dimly prophesying the arrival of someone like… Barack Obama in our political life. Most conservatives, especially those of a libertarian inclination, along with most historians, understand the statement very differently – but that does not mean that contemporary conservative politicians are using it more wisely.
Students of the Founding know that Jefferson was neither dreaming of politicians to come nor in any sense innovating. The Sentence derives from earlier writings on natural rights philosophy, a comprehensive worldview whose precepts, as the intellectual historian Jerome Huyler has amply demonstrated, were widely shared at the time – not just by the writer and signatories of the Declaration of Independence, but by the revolutionary generation they represented, and to a great extent by Americans colonists even to the first settlements. “Equal creation,” “unalienable Rights” as a gift of the “Creator,” and the immediate enumeration of the most significant rights were familiar to educated Americans and especially to all “thinking revolutionaries” in Great Britain and the not-yet-united states long before July 4, 1776.
It is hardly surprising that the use and even the insistence on just this language remains common on the American right, where both the deity and the Founders are treated with reverence. Nor is it surprising, or any less indicative, that the concept leaves many on the secular left dumbfounded. When reacting to Fred Thompson’s invocation of divinely ordained natural rights in 2007, for instance, “university scholar” Jacques Berlinerblau, faith-blogging for the Washington Post, saw only a calculated pitch to social conservatives, with a gesture to libertarians “on the backstroke. ” Double doctorates notwithstanding, Berlinerblau, like the HuffPo’s Malia Litman reacting to Palin as linked above, betrayed no apparent awareness of just where the wacky righty got his quaint notion.
Yet the ill-founded condescension and kneejerk suspicion from the likes of Berlinerblau and Litman underline a deeper challenge to the conservative right, as brought home during Rand Paul’s recent travails as well as in the rather appalled reaction to Newt Gingrich’s comparisons, under the rubric of “secular socialism,” of Obamaist liberals to Nazis and Communists. There may be an essential, not merely a contingent or politically useful, connection between libertarianism and Judeo-Christian moral philosophy, but in the America of 2010 the idea is far from consensual, or even widely held. It doesn’t even qualify as widely understood, and intimations of its rigorous implementation, theoretical or practical, are received as wholly unacceptable where not merely controversial.
Jefferson’s “we” ain’t us – not all of us anyway. His truths, where taken to be true at all, will seem far from “self-evident.” Many Americans will hide, or not even bother to hide, a contemptuous snicker at the phrase “created equal,” unaware that it’s gone completely over their heads. At best, since most like the idea of equality at least in the sense of fairness, they may decide to help the Dead White Male out, and, like senate-candidate Obama to fellow Democrats, adapt the phrase for present purposes (perhaps while reminding each other in superior tones that the DWM owned slaves). And when the skeptics reach “endowed by their Creator,” the snickering may escalate to New Atheist-style catcalls, or possibly to more polite forms of stubborn dissent. It’s only by the time that we get to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit,” with its hedonistic resonances, that much of the audience will be back on board at all.
When conservatives invoke the Founders’ formulation, asserting and demanding consensus, it therefore has the opposite implication and effect. It points to a lack of political-social consensus, and to a large extent seems meant to – typically dividing an audience of sympathizers from a vast societal other. Indeed, if the consensus were general, it wouldn’t need to be proclaimed at all, the minions of King George having long since been vanquished.
As the strongest advocates of the view hasten to remind us, the lack of consensus would not be an excuse for resisting the truth of their position. They believe that the failure to acknowledge the transcendental origins of our rights renders those rights vulnerable – turns them into mere matters of opinion rather than the unshakable foundations of our freedom. Long before Dostoevsky, the American Founders and their intellectual precursors worried that “without God, everything [would be] permitted.” Though many modern readers sense first a fear of moral chaos in this statement, the natural rights theorists, like their descendants among us, were at least equally concerned with resistance to tyranny – with what a government (or government-established religion) that didn’t respect natural rights might permit itself. Following Locke, the concept of equal creation for them leads logically to “equal protection”: In matters of material property and conscience both, and in a manner prior to and beyond any social contracts between rulers and the ruled, government cannot infringe upon these natural rights without coming into conflict with the higher law, God’s law, and therefore with God.
The proponents of faith-based libertarianism see themselves to be offering the one political ideology whose commitment to freedom and equality is fundamental and absolute. Yet their argument for the divinely ordained inviolability of rights turns immediately into its opposite for anyone on the outs: If our rights depend on God and God alone, then non- and less-than-ardent believers, it would seem, are left to conclude that our rights must be fully negotiable, or at any rate that conservatives lack a good argument to the contrary. Even believers may be left uncomfortable by the sense that conservatives are promoting an inherently exclusionary and prejudicial worldview.
The rationale that often follows – “just between us smart people” – that
it’s better for society if people accept religious belief, whether or not it withstands inquiry, sooner or later tends to confirm the skeptic’s suspicion of an elite in waiting whose members are as or more interested in temporal power than transcendent verities. However we were created, and by whatever, and to whatever supposed effect and purpose, a corrosive and inherently vulnerable inequality, between the as-good-as-atheist illuminati and the masses manipulated for their own good, is put forward as a bargain whose terms must never be spelled out, for the sake of order. The purveyors of self-evident, transcendent truth seem to reveal themselves as willing dissemblers and ends-justify-the-means materialists after all.
Until we have translated Jefferson’s words honestly, accurately, and accessibly into a contemporary and inclusive idiom – inclusive enough to be spoken by Allahpundit and by James Dobson, by John Derbyshire and by Sarah Palin, too – the opponents of constitutional conservatism will find justifications for ridicule and general resistance, alongside potentially critical divisions in the conservative coalition.