People from all over the world, and especially in the USA, are impressed by the memorable words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed with rights, among which are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that it is to secure these rights that governments are instituted among men.”
From a Christian point of view, there are two comments that need to be made about this famous statement. The first is that it has reversed the Christian position as to what is basic to what. The Christian position for 1700 years before Jefferson was that God had built into all creation – and especially into human nature – the norms of justice and morality. The classic formulation of the norm of justice was: “Give to each his due,” and the norm of morality was: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” From the Christian point of view, it was because of these universal norms that people had rights. Since a legal right is a benefit or immunity that cannot be denied without injustice, the norm of justice is the basis of legal rights. For example, it is because it is unjust to rob another person that all people have the right not to be robbed. Likewise, since a moral right is a benefit or immunity that cannot be denied without being unloving, all people have the right not to be disrespected.
Jefferson reversed all that. Since he did not believe in God, he didn’t want to make rights depend on norms built into creation by God. So he declared that people are born with rights and that “it is to secure these rights that governments are instituted by men.” Several grievous consequences have resulted from his reversal.
The first is that it resulted in a fierce debate over who, exactly, was born with rights. If rights were viewed as the result of norms built into creation by God, there could have been no debate. Norms built into creation would govern everything in creation, so debates as to whether women, Indians, or Blacks have rights would have made no sense. “All men” would have meant “all human beings” and there could have been no exceptions. But since the rights were supposed to come first and the laws made to support them, there certainly was debate about whether laws should guarantee rights to women, Indians, or Blacks. And for the longest time the debate concluded they should not. At one point, the Supreme Court actually told Dred Scott, who had sued to have his humanity recognized, that he was not a human being.
The second is that the idea of rights was left with no guidelines. How do we know exactly what the rights are that people are born with? Unless the idea of rights is guided by the idea of norms of justice and love, the entire notion degenerates into “I want this therefore I have a right to this.” In short, though there are disagreements about exactly what is just and what is loving, those ideas are not as amorphous and vague as are undefined rights. The upshot is that while the idea that all people have rights has a Christian basis, that idea has been detached from its basis by Jefferson’s mis-statement of it.
What is worse, the US Constitution has abandoned even the weakened Jeffersonian version of rights. At least Jefferson preserved the belief that whatever rights people have are “unalienable” which meant they could not be taken away (or even voluntarily given up) without injustice. But the Constitution makes rights a matter of vote! It says that any right it names in the Bill of Rights can be repealed by three fifths of the States or two thirds of the Congress!
So according to the Constitution, none of the rights it names are “un- alienable.” This makes the supreme authority in public life the “will of the people” rather than the norms of justice and love established and revealed by God.
These consequences, though significant, are not the worst to follow from Jefferson’s recasting of the idea of rights. From the Christian point of view, it is worse that he missed altogether that not only individuals, but communities and institutions have both rights and obligations. This is true of marriages, families, schools, churches, businesses, and – of course – governments, and the rights and obligations of each vary with their role in human society. This is the idea that Abraham Kuyper called “sphere sovereignty.”
From the Christian point of view, then, both founding documents of the US are less than perfect. Thus, it falls on Christians to preserve the true idea of rights by continuing to maintain both their proper basis and their proper scope. Their basis is the command to love justice and the command to love our neighbors as ourselves. And the proper scope of rights is to cover all of human life; all communities as well as all individuals.
As Kuyper himself once summerized the point: “There is not a square inch of life of which Christ does not say ‘mine!’”
Roy Clouser, PhD
The College of New Jersey
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