That our rights come from God is deeply etched in the American consciousness. It is emblazoned in the document we celebrate tomorrow, which famously Declares that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Though present-day conservatives champion the belief more often, it was a credo for liberal icons like Martin Luther King Jr. (“Man has rights that are neither conferred by nor derived from the state, they are God-given”) and John F. Kennedy (“the essentially Christian and American principle that there are certain rights held by every man which no government and no majority, however powerful, can deny”).
But the idea withstands neither religious nor logical scrutiny.
My religion, Judaism, believes responsibilities are unalienable, not rights. At best, Jewish law references “rights” only indirectly. Sure, some of the Talmud’s rules of procedure roughly correspond with those of the Bill of Rights (self-incrimination, public trials, double jeopardy), but their purpose is communal (a just system), not individual. Jewish law depends on judges, not juries; and under Jewish sovereignty an Establishment of Religion is required, not prohibited.
Both Christianity and Judaism revere the Five Books of Moses which, read literally, bely the Constitution’s supposed Divinity:
- If men cannot forfeit property without “due process of law,” why did the twice-a-century Jubilee revert all property to its original owners (Leviticus 25:10)?
- How does the “excessive fines” clause jibe with the Biblical rule that thieves must pay up to five times restitution (Exodus 21:37)?
- If God had bestowed a “right of the people to be secure in their … houses,” why does God praise Pinchas for executing a wrongdoer in his own tent (Numbers 25:11)?
- And given “nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted,” what’s the deal with stoning?
Christianity similarly has no reasonable claim to be the source of the Bill of Rights. The New Testament is not a law code, and neither the Pauline epistles nor Jesus himself discussed things like excessive bail or the right to petition the government. Further, abortion has been a Constitutional right since 1973 – as has same-sex marriage since 2015. Yet Catholics, Evangelicals, Mormons, and others hardly think those were endowed by our Creator.
In fact, the list of Constitutional rights changes all the time. Do those who believe our rights come from God believe Our Father in Heaven changed His mind about free counsel for the poor in 1963 and narrowed His understanding of libel in 1964? Are we to ascribe Prophecy to the Supreme Court, at least when it’s not making “un-Godly” decisions like Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges? Are some rights more alienable than others?
Or perhaps the Founders received direct Divine communication themselves? It’s an odd proposition, since among today’s major religions, only Mormons believe in latter-day saints.
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. The Bible certainly praises all three broad rights in the Declaration of Independence. For example:
- “You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live” (Deuteronomy 31:19
- “Proclaim liberty throughout the land and all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10)
- “Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who produces discernment” (Proverbs 3:13)
But such verses are far too general to be the wellspring of the very detailed Bill of Rights. If we insist nonetheless that our Constitutional rights come from God, perhaps we’ll respect them more, but we might also might grow complacent about them.
We’re more likely to vigorously defend our liberties this Independence Day if we ascribe our Constitutional rights to the American people, starting with the brilliant (if imperfect) vision of the Founding Fathers; guarded by the brains, labor and blood of generations of Americans; and now cradled in our hands, fragile enough that only the most fervent defense can keep them whole. May God inspire us to do so with wisdom.