Today, Americans celebrate not simply the birth of our nation, but also the freedoms this nation offers. It is the freedoms that we cherish that make a difference. But, where do those freedoms come from? The Founders unanimously agreed that that all men "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."1 But if God doesn't exist, would the Declaration make any sense? From where could we derive our rights if not from God alone?
In thinking about this question, it seems to me that one has only four options when arguing for the rights of persons: Our freedoms either derive from the inalienable rights granted to us by the government, the common consent of the governed, by nature, or by God alone. In the next couple of posts I intend to argue that none of the first three options make any sense. Only God can grant inalienable rights and thus it is only through God that we have any right to the freedoms we enjoy. Then, I'd like to look at a couple of those rights specifically in light of the liberal backlash against the recent Hobby Lobby court decision.
Rights don't come from governmentsThe first option one has in establishing our rights is the claim that they are bestowed upon us by the government. This seems problematic on its face, though, for if a government can bestow rights on an individual, then that same government can take them away. Such actions are no longer rights, but should be considered privileges that the government allows the governed. I had heard this often in high school when I was taking drivers education classes. "A driver's license is a privilege, not a right."2 The state may revoke the license if it deems you unfit to drive or if you are uncooperative by not submitting to an alcohol test, for example.
Rights are different than privileges. They are things that cannot be removed by fiat. While a government may trample on one's rights or ignore one's rights, the right itself remains. For those individuals, such as criminals who are incarcerated, they may have their rights curtailed, but that is only after a trial that shows others' rights were being infringed upon by their actions. However, no one is divorced from his or her rights.
This is what Jefferson meant when he invented the word "unalienable," it is impossible to erase rights or transfer them to another. All people have them, and that was precisely the argument the Founding Fathers were making. They were separating themselves from the government because their rights were being abused and their freedoms were being trampled. They felt it was necessary to dissolve the bonds with the government of England, so that their rights would be exercised freely. Therefore, rights cannot come from the government. Rights exist prior to governments.
Rights don't come from the governedBecause we understand that rights precede governments and that they must be unalienable, option two becomes fairly easy to dismiss. Rights cannot come from the common consent of the governed because if our rights are given by common consent, then they may be removed by common consent. The United States is a government as Lincoln put it "of the people, by the people and for the people," formed "by Authority of the good People of these Colonies" as the Declaration says. But it is not simply the agreement of the citizens of a country that bestows rights upon themselves. Such rights are again not unalienable. If they can be agreed upon my mutual consent, then they can be removed by mutual consent. Therefore, rights given by common consent are not inalienable. They are again not rights but simply agreed upon privileges.
Rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (not the happiness one feels when receiving a birthday gift, but the more sublime pursuit of contentment in life) must be unalienable if they are to be rights at all. That means they must transcend any human authority, for human authorities can never bestow anything unalienable. It is God alone who can do so. The Framers knew this and they appealed to God repeatedly in the Declaration. They declared that it was necessary for them to assume "the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them." They said that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." They even finished the Declaration with an appeal to God and His authority: "We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States."
In my next post, I will look at the idea that rights are not derived from nature, but for now we should remember that to celebrate the freedoms that we cherish as Americans means to celebrate the rights we recognize as the basis for those freedoms. But for rights to be real, they must be grounded in Almighty God. So, say a prayer during your holiday celebrations, and thank your Creator for giving brave men the wisdom to recognize where your rights come from. Without God, there can be no freedom.
2 In the article "Law Talk: Who says driving is a privilege and not a right?" Barton Dieters cites the 9th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals decision in the case of Donald S. Miller v. the California Department of Motor Vehicles, where the court ruled that there simply is no "fundamental right to drive. See . http://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2011/11/law_talk_who_says_driving_is_a.html for more.