“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods? If the latter, then is the will of the gods themselves arbitrary and impious. If the former, then are the gods subject to the law of piety and are therefore no gods at all.”
-attributed to Plato, d. 347 B.C.
Recently, while driving home from work, I listened to back-to-back segments on Nashville’s #1-rated talk show which gave me mental whiplash.
In the first break, WTN’s hosts recalled the Supreme Court nominees of Barack Obama’s administration. The on-air personalities and their call-in guests unanimously agreed: as conservatives, nothing had been more frustrating over the past 8 years than when Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, pressed by the Senate confirmation committee, balked at identifying human rights as God-given. Rather, both had associated with the post-modern collectivist idea that human rights are more of a convenience granted (or not) by government.
It was one of the show’s finer moments, as the broadcaster gave an impassioned talk on why human rights must, by their very nature, be inherent in every person independent of any government. For believers, that means the human impulse for freedom takes legitimacy from the Divine will itself, and anyone in this world who longs to be free can do so only from a desire which It has so designed. Similarly, atheist thought has described the nature of human rights as something so fundamentally woven into humanity’s natural law that to suppress it cannot but end with disaster.
Kagan’s and Sotomayor’s post-modern stance of rights-from-government flew in the face of all that; the government grants freedom to its (!) people, not as “rights” in any real sense, but as mere “privileges” to be given or taken away with no necessary rhyme or reason. Free speech, then, and free thought, free association and travel, free worship or lack thereof, are all no more than undeserved extras given to us by overlords who may take them away at their convenience. For if human rights are given by government, what is to prevent it from repossessing that which it owns by right of creation?
Well and good. Ten minutes later, though, I wondered if I had mistakenly switched frequencies or else my favorite show had been taken over in the break by those caricatured liberals just described. In this segment, the topic shifted to a recently-captured ISIS operative in the United States and his lawyer who wanted a trial in the civil courts. Nashville’s finest once again put on a show, thumping his hand audibly on the studio desk and shouting
“If we take foreign terrorists who don’t fight fair, and treat them like American citizens when, by definition, the American Constitution doesn’t apply to them, we’re all gonna get ourselves killed!”
In the time it takes to run two rounds of radio ads for grocery markets and the little blue pill, apparently we Americans’ basic rights went from inalienable and sacred to nothing more than a geographical accident of birth.
The contradictions of that afternoon drive-home talk show are collectively the trap in which post-September 11 conservative philosophy finds itself. The memory of the founders’ intent is still strong on the right: we need no reminding that the Constitution was written as a negative document, rather than a positive one.
The human rights recognized by the United States and its people are stated in terms of negative rights, and our freedom is safeguarded by being outlined in terms of what the state cannot do to us. Yet, if we’re being honest with ourselves, many of us don’t really believe for one second that “All men are endowed by their Creator,” only the ones within our borders. After all, if we do that, we’re gonna get ourselves killed.
This is a very interesting situation. Modern libertarianism is no help here, since governments must be run on experience of what we know to work, not untried visions of hypothetical libertarian utopia. The purpose of government is not to be small; the purpose of government is to govern. On the liberal side, the more communitarian social contract model fails also. Any society might limit its liberties to those more likely to be a threat because it is pragmatic, but the question of whether it is logically or morally justifiable is left to echo unanswered in the halls of government.
To say “endowed by the Creator” is not just a rhetorical prop here, Christian thinkers argue. They say it was inevitable for the decline of American Christianity to not eventually also produce a lack of belief in the sacredness of human rights issues, once the deity from whom those blessings flow is no longer actively worshiped by a significant part of the population.
Dr. Earl Lavender, founding director of the Institute for Christian Spirituality, argued that the decline of organized religion in America would have implications reaching to every corner of the public and private American experience, far beyond church-house doors. He noted the ongoing first chapter of post-Christian America will be as prone to committing moral disasters as any generation in the nation’s history, since a culture bereaved of its long-established moral code and assumptions must develop a new one on the fly by trial and error.
The guarantee of human entitlement to basic freedoms could once go unquestioned because its guarantor was not the state, but the Most High. What now remains is the decreasing momentum of the God-given-rights vehicle after the engine itself has been cut off. What we see, then, ultimately might not be a technical legal question of U.S. foreign policy at all but rather the attempt of a people to hold up the roof after the pillar has been removed.
The debate over what civil rights should apply to whom will rage on, but with less moral clarity than ever before as old debates come under scrutiny from new theories about the world.