God, Our Rights, and the Modern Liberal Mind

Published February 16, 2015

Commentary Magazine

In a recent interview, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore told CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, “Our rights, contained in the Bill of Rights, do not come from the Constitution, they come from God.”

“Our rights do not come from God,” Cuomo replied. “That’s your faith. That’s my faith. But that’s not our country.” (For this portion of the exchange, see starting around the 13:00 minute mark.)

In fact, Mr. Cuomo is wrong and Judge Moore is right, at least in the context of America and its history. To understand why, it’s important to point out that the Constitution is America’s governing charter, one that sets up a structure of government. To be sure, the Bill of Rights lay out certain rights the people are entitled to against every government on earth. But to understand where those rights come from, what their source is, one needs to turn to the Declaration of Independence. And here is what the Declaration states:

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…

It could hardly be clearer, then: Governments are instituted in order to secure rights that are God-given. And faith in divinely given rights is a consistent theme not only of the founders but of nearly every president. John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address, crystalized the point this way: “Yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe–the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”

But the person who most often tied the story and meaning of America to the self-evident truths of the Declaration was our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln. Time and again he asked Americans to return to what he called the “sacred principles” embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Here is but one noteworthy 1858passage from Lincoln that bears on this matter:

Now, if slavery had been a good thing, would the Fathers of the Republic have taken a step calculated to diminish its beneficent influences among themselves, and snatch the boon wholly from their posterity? These communities, by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: “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.” This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures.

Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows. They grasped not only the whole race of man then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity. They erected a beacon to guide their children and their children’s children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages. Wise statesmen as they were, they knew the tendency of prosperity to breed tyrants, and so they established these great self-evident truths, that when in the distant future some man, some faction, some interest, should set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take courage to renew the battle which their fathers began—so that truth, and justice, and mercy, and all the humane and Christian virtues might not be extinguished from the land; so that no man would hereafter dare to limit and circumscribe the great principles on which the temple of liberty was being built. [Emphasis added.]

It is one thing to argue that our rights are not God-given and that the Declaration, the founders, Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and so many other great documents and figures in American history were wrong to claim they were. Those who hold this view, of course, need to explain the basis for believing in and protecting unalienable rights and human dignity if they are not grounded in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Absent a Creator, what is the argument against capriciousness, injustice, and tyranny? How does one create a system of justice and make the case against, say, slavery, if you begin with two propositions: one, the universe was created by chance; and two, it will end in nothing? How do you derive a belief in a moral law that is binding on you and others apart from theism? How do you get from the “is” to the “ought”? But that is another argument for another day.

Where Mr. Cuomo goes off the rails is in asserting that “it is not our country” to say our rights come from God. This actually is a philosophical thread that runs throughout the history of our country with astonishing consistency and, at least until now, a proposition very few people disputed. So Mr. Cuomo’s statement is not only wrong; it is historically illiterate.

Illiterate, but revealing, too. There is something about the modern liberal mind that makes it so fearful about linking our rights to God that those (like Chris Cuomo) who hold this view disfigure our history in order to make their case.  Those who commit this error also seem clueless that the greatest strides toward justice in our history have occurred precisely because people like Lincoln and King articulated a human anthropology that was grounded in a belief in God. In his great debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln countered the argument of “popular sovereignty” by explaining that human beings were endowed by their Creator with fundamental rights that were inviolate regardless of what the popular will said. Thankfully it was Lincoln’s view, not Douglas’s, that prevailed.

Mr. Cuomo has a (God-given) right to believe what he wants. But in stating his case, he really should get his facts straight. Otherwise he risks looking foolish, as he did in his exchange with Judge Moore.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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