"Our rights come from God"

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 specification of the most significant rights were familiar to educated Americans and especially to all “thinking revolutionaries” in 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.

The strongest advocates of faith-based libertarianism will remind us all the same that the lack of consensus would not be an excuse for resisting the truth of their position, which they believe offers the one political ideology whose commitment to freedom and equality is fundamental and absolute.  They remain convinced 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.  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.  To expect religious conservatives to perform this translation may be unrealistic, however, not because they would be incapable of it, but because for many the soundest basis of all for political activity is in having their beliefs, in just the way they believe them, disseminated in the public square.  Many very much like hearing about the deity – as much or more than the atheists and agnostics may be repelled by it.  Many would interpret less of their preferred speech as a political demotion.

If there’s something in the natural rights philosophy of the Founders for us all, it may be up to fellow conservatives to provide the “more speech” that comprehends both the traditional, culture-bound phraseology as well as its alternatives – words for those who, however constrained by faith or faithlessness, can have no use or affection for “our rights come from God,” and retain their own natural right to ask, “What do your words really mean for the rest of us?”

cross-adapted from Zombie Contentions

30 comments on “"Our rights come from God"

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  1. Ayn Rand made a very compelling case for the nature and origins of rights that did not depend on theism of any kind. I’d recommend reading “Atlas Shrugged” for a very thoughtful explanation.

  2. So, the solution to the prevailing ignorance is that we should do less to spread the truth? IMHO the lesson of the past century of political rhetoric is that repetition works, cowed silence doesn’t.

  3. 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.

    How about just Natural Rights are an inherent part of the human being. Now whether that inherence is do to divine blessing or simply a natural characteristic of a human being is a philosophical debate that cannot be proven scientifically.

    It’s why Iranians also have a right to speak their minds, and those who violently oppose peaceful marches are criminals.

    It’s also why things such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights, what with a “right” to housing and a “right” to a job are nonsensical. You have no right to medical care, because that implies that someone else has a duty to provide you with that medical care, making them in essence a slave to you for a bit of time. You do have the right to seek out to see if someone will trade you some medical care for scraps of certain paper, or perhaps a chicken.

    Just leave it at Natural Rights are inherent with in us, just like we have a right to breathe because that is how we are constructed. Are they given by God? I don’t know, it’s awfully hard to know God’s mind.

  4. NNtrancer on May 24, 2010 at 12:20 PM

    For purposes of discussion, it would be helpful if you summarized Rand’s view – or, even better, provided a quote that inclusively substituted for or translated or interpreted Jefferson and the social conservatives.

    joe_doufu on May 24, 2010 at 2:14 PM

    Not sure what you mean by “the truth,” or where you got the notion that I was advocating anyone do or say “less.” I explicitly call on those who are or believe themselves to be excluded to remedy the problem with more speech, and not to expect the faithful to shut up.

  5. One day, in our explorations of space and technology, I believe we will discover sentient alien life and perhaps create artificial intelligence of our own.

    Genetically, these beings will not have been born, programmed, or hatched as a member of Homo Sapiens. But they will have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The rights inalienable to us are inalienable even to aliens. Can anybody dispute this?

    The question is, why is this so? The theistic argument is that all of these beings are directly or indirectly the creation of Deity, and endowed with the knowledge of good and evil. This is the argument made by the Founding Fathers.

    In any case, is there something unique and special about sentience and self-awareness in an individual, a model of machinery, or a species that turns questions of its activities into a matter of rights? Perhaps the idea of rights coming from God is much like the misunderstood phrase, “We have no king, but King Jesus!” This is a statement often used by secularists to say that conservative Christians want Jesus as their king. This phrase was uttered in days when many still believed in the divine right of kings. What was really meant was that the questions about the mediation of power between God and the common populace in the American form of government shall not be invested in a ruling individual, but in ones conscience and its relationship with God.

    By the same token, saying that rights come from God may be saying that the specialness of sentience is a thing far beyond mortal man, and not subject to his limited view.

  6. Ayn Rand made a very compelling case for the nature and origins of rights that did not depend on theism of any kind. I’d recommend reading “Atlas Shrugged” for a very thoughtful explanation.

    NNtrancer on May 24, 2010 at 12:20 PM

    It’s a lot of fluff to wade through in order to get to the juicy parts. I would recommend her non-fiction works, in particular “The Virtue Of Selfishness,” for a less verbose and more to the point explanation of the same thing.

  7. the only important right is the right to bear arms.

    and hold gun shows.

    God created automatic weapons in accordance with scriptural guidelines and none of these artsy-fartsy leftist government agents has a right to tamper with them.

    even government contractors are denied this.

  8. When I went over to that article in the Huffington Post, I was dumb founded, gob smacked at the incredible, overwhelming ignorance. Do they really have no idea where that quote came from? Do they really know they are trashing the Declaration of Independence or is it just an excuse to trash Sarah and it really doesn’t matter what she says?

    Just wow!

  9. odannyboy, I agree, but it’s really hard to write an even somewhat lengthy article about Sarah Palin without it being full of ignorance.

    don’t think that the story trashed the Declaration all that much. mostly it was a silly swipe at Palin’s attempt to equate her own opinions and purported policies with those of the Creator.

    anyway, it’s not like anyone saying that Palin’s incorrect in knowing the Divine Will is more likely to know it.

  10. best policy is to modify all weapons for automatic fire, prepare and load your own ammo, and trust no one whose smell is not known to you.

  11. I would like to compliment CK on an eloquent and thought provoking article, lacking the usual verbose pretentiousness, obsession with progressivism, and slams on Glenn Beck.

  12. But, speaking of Glenn Beck, GB dealt with this last week while discussing George Whitefield. According to him the idea of equal is tied to the notion of us all being equal when standing before God in judgement.

  13. Of course, that brings us to the question of why God would want us to have rights. To me, it boils down to free will. Without full rights we cannot exercise free will.

  14. “What do your words really mean for the rest of us?”

    He’s giving you the rights whether you want them or not. Eventually, He will see what you did with them. In the meantime, enjoy.

  15. Ayn Rand made a very compelling case for the nature and origins of rights that did not depend on theism of any kind. I’d recommend reading “Atlas Shrugged” for a very thoughtful explanation.

    NNtrancer on May 24, 2010 at 12:20 PM

    What will you do then with the assumption in the founding documents that there is a Creator, & that He is the source of our rights?

  16. What will you do then with the assumption in the founding documents that there is a Creator, & that He is the source of our rights?

    what difference would such an “assumption” make and why should anyone care about it?

  17. audiculous on May 24, 2010 at 7:14 PM

    Without the Founders, everything is permitted.

    Seriously, it’s not a small thing to junk the founding precepts of a nation born from an idea. In addition, not only the Founders, but Lincoln also was guided by a natural rights concept. You might say that we’ve been getting by without, increasingly, but conservatives would say, well, that’s the problem. More important or anyway more telling, on what are you going to base a coherent and secure argument for the rights of the individual, and through the individual of any minority, without reference to some fundamental law beyond the law? If you have an answer, please do tell. Otherwise, you can go back to trying to pick a fight with someone, I guess.

  18. In a general sense, our basic rights may come from God: life, liberty, freedom/pursuit of happiness, etc. But we have many man-created rights as well. I don’t think God has a position on how many jurors it should take to convict someone of a crime, and I’m not certain He is very high on the Establishment clause either. So at some point our “rights”, as they are commonly defined, are a mix of natural and man-made.

  19. It’s no wonder that all of loyal readers and devotees of Hot Air hate you!

    The documents remain to describe the bounds of what’s permitted.
    Beside that, the assumption our rights derive from the Creator is not essential to the notion that our rights are fundamental and predate the derogation of some of them in the Constitution.

    There’s nothing essential about the existence of God to the notion that governments are validated by the consent of the governed.

    Buy a clue, or stop pestering real conservatives!

  20. audiculous on May 24, 2010 at 3:24 PM

    In all this snark, I’m on pins and needles to hear you explain how you expect to enforce any other right without the second, and further, how to enforce the second without the weaponry that would be used by a tyrannical government.

  21. Am I expected to know what you mean by “enforce any other right without the second”?

    I don’t.

    I’m willing to guess that you mean the Second Amendment, but that still leaves obscure the meaning of the remainder.

    As far as I remember, the weaponry that the tyrannical government uses to enforce our rights is authorized much earlier in the document.

    In seriousness, I would try to give you a straight answer, but you’ll have to help me to understand what it is that you’re asking.

  22. There’s nothing essential about the existence of God to the notion that governments are validated by the consent of the governed.

    Buy a clue, or stop pestering real conservatives!

    audiculous on May 24, 2010 at 11:20 PM

    That wasn’t the question, or the issue: The issue isn’t immediately whether the government can be “validated” in any of several ways, just as the “consent” of the governed can be determined in any of several ways. The issue for is how government can best be restrained – and specifically how this government can best be kept from betraying the purposes for which it was instituted.

    The documents by themselves are just so much paper and ink, as we have seen over and over around the world.

  23. audiculous on May 25, 2010 at 12:38 AM

    It’s okay. Comprehension is not everyone’s strong suit. Yes, I meant the Second Amendment.

    And I repeat, how do you enforce the Second Amendment without the weaponry that would be used by a tyrannical government(automatic weapons, for example).

  24. Mad Con, quite obviously comprehension isn’t yours.

    I answered the question you just posed as I attempted to tease meaning from your mangling of the English language in your initial response.

  25. audiculous on May 25, 2010 at 4:41 PM

    No, you haven’t. You didn’t even address it. I’m loath to ask again, because it’s clear you don’t want to give a straight answer. I’ll give it one more go.

    1. How do you enforce any right without the Second Amendment?

    2. How do you enforce the Second Amendment without weaponry equivalent to what a tyrannical government would use against citizens it wished to suppress(such as automatic weapons, whose private ownership you derided earlier)?

    If you’ve got straight answers to those questions, awesome. If not, I invite you to go play on the freeway.

  26. Tough being a conservative in Madison, so I guess it’s not surprising to see an robust engagement on issues from one…

    Fwiw, I think the NFA is unconstitutional, and that the 2nd should be incorporated under strict scrutiny, and that the Feds should have no say over what arms you own, and the states could limit arms to say, common infantry weapons, rather than F-18s.

    MadCon, are you familiar with Olafsson’s case?


    He’s got less than a year to serve, but loses his rights to keep and bear?

    BATFE ought to be dissolved…

    CK, I am hard pressed to say this, but at last a thread I can agree with, well done, if you’re not spoofing, that is….

  27. Dear MadCon

    1) in court and through the franchise.

    2) there is not, at present, legal, or other, access to the range of weapons the the government of the US might bring to bear. you might spend a moment considering the range of weaponry that the government possesses. when you raise up your rifle, will you be expecting to bring down that Apache AH-64D?

    if it comes to a fight, it isn’t going to go won that way.

  28. It boils down to an expression of negative versus positive rights:

    Do we want to get our rights from a government that will always, when allowed, become more restrictive towards said rights in order to gain that power? (positive, or government granted, rights)


    Do we want a government that is restricted from doing anything not specifically granted to it by the people through the constitution? (negative, government can’t do, rights)

    My view, and the Christian view the Jefferson quote comes from, is that God created us to be free, and the government should not dictate what our rights and freedoms are.

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