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 Declaration of Independence
One of my favorite conservative follows on Twitter is John Nolte of Breitbart.com.
I like John, who I don’t know personally, only through his work and Twitter, because I see him as more willing to call out his team, the conservatives, than most. It’s a sensibility I share. That’s why I whack guys liberals like the UAW’s Bob King with the same intensity I do Michigan House Speaker Jase Bolger. If your own team never does anything wrong, you’re a partisan — which means boring, unthoughtful and willing to change positions based on whether the person talking is wearing a blue or red tie.
John’s not boring. But he can be frustrating. On Wednesday, Nolte Tweeted:
“People shouldn’t have to explain why we need guns other than owning them is a God-given right protected in the Constitution.”
The “God-given rights” argument is one of my bigger pet peeves. It’s something I’ve seen people, usually conservatives, apply to policy issues as disparate as gun rights and tax policy. It’s the political equivalent of Ray Lewis believing that God led the Baltimore Ravens to win the Super Bowl: Sounds right and honorable to say but breaks down the more you think about it. Eventually it just sounds self-serving. It’s American Exceptionalism draped in a cross.
This was especially the case when America was little more than an idea, an experiment, back in the Declaration days. When your mother country is the British Empire, and you’re trying to break free, you want something more substantial than a tax beef argued by a bunch of guys with powdered wigs. You need an endorsement from on high.
The idea of God-given rights isn’t about God and it’s only nominally about rights. It’s an attempt to make one’s political positions rubber-stamped from above and thus not subject to argument. Taxes aren’t a rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s, they are theft, a denial of sacred property rights. Making it harder for people to get their hands on guns isn’t a matter of public safety, it’s a violation of the sacred right to self-defense. (Who wants to make the more guns-less crime argument and apply it to Detroit? Didn’t think so.)
One can easily find fault with the 113th Congress and its predecessors or President Obama and his predecessors. But you can’t very well argue with God, right?
I pushed Nolte on the issue but could never get him to respond. Fortunately, as always happens when I start this discussion on Twitter, others spoke up.
One gentleman argued that self-defense is a natural right. OK, but having the right to defend one’s self does not mean being entitled to the weapon of your choice. I stipulated that the line is somewhere above mere fists and somewhere below mini nuclear weapons. But the idea that God is sitting above us, granting his endorsement to certain types of weapons and not others — bows and arrows are OK but that tank is crossing the line — like a one-man Congress, is ridiculous.
The rights we have are not ordained up in the Heavens, but determined here on Earth by the people in charge at that time.
The most citizenship-necessary right of all, the right to vote, the right to give consent to the people who will govern, was denied to black people in large numbers until civil rights legislation in the 1960s. From 1920 to 1933, the right to pursue happiness by drinking alcohol was not only eliminated but deemed Unconstitutional.
Did God change his mind? Or did he actually have nothing to do with the process?
If God really did intend for black people to be treated like full citizens all that time, not as slaves, not as ⅗ a person, not as people who warranted separate schools and drinking fountains, not as a people who should be denied the right to vote, he needs to fire his enforcement department. Because it took more than 150 years for things to work out that way — to the extent they have.
What good is a God-given right if man can take it away? Look at that quote from the Declaration of Independence. God gives the rights, but man has to do all the heavy lifting. And when man does the wrong thing, other men can come together and try to vote him out. In a very real sense our rights are man-given and they are man-taken. God’s involvement is non-existent, though it does sound nice.
I can’t find a list of God-given rights that isn’t ahistorical. The basics, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, were and are denied to a great many people throughout American history — to say nothing of world history, which has much poorer results. The results indicate these people would be better served getting off their knees and on the phone with their Congressman.
So maybe you can help me understand the argument better. Every time I’d had this discussion, the person I’m talking to, at some point, wheels back to the human-given nature of the same rights they say are God given. That’s when I hear lamentations about my skepticism of the Constitution and “the beliefs that made America great” — all choices made by humans, by the way. I hear snark about how I should’ve paid more attention in civics class.
But I don’t find people who can answer these questions. Hopefully you can.
1. What are the God-given rights? I’d love to make a definitive list. Are talking about the Bush 43 tax rates? The right to own rifles that carry 30-shot clips? The right to vote? To drink? To marry who one chooses?
2. Why is history littered with people whose unalienable rights were, in fact, alienated? When man denies these rights to other men, what does God do then? What actions are taken so that God’s will be done? Are the people who take them acting on God’s behalf, or is this just humans being humans? Who gets the blame? Who gets the credit?
Maybe it’s time we admit Ani DiFranco was right after all: God’s work isn’t done by God, it’s done by people.