Are These Inalienable Rights Really Self-Evident?

The Declaration of Independence speaks of Inalienable Rights. What are these rights, and how do we know these rights are inalienable?

The Declaration of Independence severed the relationship of colonies to the colonizer.   Although this is not the document upon which the nation’s government is established (that’s the U.S. Constitution), it sets in place a vision for how the emerging nation would see itself.  In laying out this vision, Thomas Jefferson, a Deist and a religious skeptic, drew upon political ideals that had been in circulation for nearly a century, ideals that drew inspiration from a number of sources, including John Locke.   Locke and his contemporaries believed in the importance of Reason, and believed Truth was self-evident, if only we would open our eyes to it.  Locke’s vision influenced political ideas, but also religious ones, as is seen in the writings of the Founders of my denomination, a faith tradition born on what was then the American Frontier not long after the establishment of a new nation on American soil.

Jefferson wrote these words that are known to many Americans, and oft quoted in recent years by many who see in this document a blueprint for small government.  My interest isn’t so much that argument as the question of what inalienable rights are truly self evident.  Consider this statement:

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.

Jefferson goes on to discuss how a government might be formed that could enact and uphold these unalienable rights, though the debate as to the formation of this government would have to wait to after the end of the Revolution and a trial form of government under the Articles of Confederation that failed miserably.  From there the Constitution was formed, but not without controversy.  My point today isn’t that conversation, but rather what truths are self-evident.

Let’s start with the question of equality.  Jefferson declared that all men were created equal, but as enacted and as understood at that time – this didn’t include women nor did it include African Americans (most of whom were slaves) nor did it include Native Americans.  In fact, it really didn’t include many men, except those who owned property.  So how self-evident was this ideal of equality?

Then come the specific unalienable rights with which we have been endowed by the Creator – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  What is the nature of these rights, for as laid out here, they seem rather ambiguous.  When you read the rest of the text the claims made against the Crown you find reference to questions of taxation, representation, protection, and the like.  I find it interesting that no claims are made about religious freedom.  The signers of that document apparently were comfortable with the arrangements of the day, even though many faith traditions were treated as second class citizens under the existing establishments.   So, if we are to bring this statement into the present, what should it say to us?  What rights are unalienable?  What does equality look like? 

Since that document was written our understanding of equality has expanded considerably.   Women now have the right to vote, as do African Americans and other minority groups.   There is much more religious freedom than was envisioned at the time.   But we’re still figuring this out.  For instance, are gays and lesbians equal before the law? 

And regarding this question of pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, I hear a lot of speech-making about the need to get government out of our lives.  I find it ironic that many of the same people who are demanding that the government stay out of our lives (usually meaning economic and environmental regulations), are seeking to pass laws that prohibit gays and lesbians from getting married.  If marriage makes a person happy, and if happiness is a self-evident right, then how can the government prohibit gay marriage?   One might go even further and ask why is it that the government is in the business of determining what marriage in the 21st century looks like?  Perhaps government has an interest in this, but is it self-evident?

I’ll throw another issue into the hopper for discussion.  I have friends who are pushing for decriminalization/legalization of marijuana.  If they find happiness in smoking marijuana, and their decision to do so has no negative impact on society (in fact a legal but regulated marijuana industry might lower crime rates and solve the budget deficit), why is government preventing them from engaging this freedom?

I’m not taking a position on either of these issues at this point, though I do have my own beliefs.  What I want to do is ask the question – in the 21st century what God-given rights are truly self-evident?  And how do we determine what is right and what is not?  Back in the 18th century appeal was made to Reason, which many believed was a gift of God to humanity.  Many still believe that our ability to think, to reason, is a gift of God, and that we can know something about what we should be doing through attending to Reason – but is it self-evident?  And is what is self-evident in one generation self-evident to another?  It appears that 18th century American Revolutionaries didn’t think that the equality and rights they were fighting for applied to the slaves or to Native Americans, or even to women. 

So how should we proceed, especially when we’re not all in agreement as to what is truly self-evident?   If we appeal, as the Declaration of Independence does to the Creator, to the Supreme Judge, and Divine Providence, whose understanding of this reality should prevail?  Or is this a contested space that requires a great deal of humility on our part? 

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Ed Lambert March 24, 2012 at 02:30 PM
Calan, you forgot the poll that says 60-some percent of the public wants SCOTUS to scuttle the requirement that people buy anything in Obamacare. Yes, tubal ligation, vasectomies (I know 'bout that), etc. are medical procedures. That does not mean that anyone is Constitutionally required to pay for someone's procedure. If one has an insurance program that provides these, it is because the person has FREELY BOUGHT the insurance or a corporate entity has done so. There is no Constitutional requirement that either party do so. Birth control procedures, ordinarily, are NOT a matter of health; they are a matter of convenience. No one suffers a health issue IPSO FACTO not being "birth controlled." It seems to me you are confusing healthcare with convenience. If you want to pursue the "right" to having sex, then I'll have to bring up medical conditions and procedures that eliminate the possibility for one to have sex. What then? It is utopian to think government can provide for everyone's desires, especially when they are confused with needs. No co-pay for anything? Well, nothing's free, so the cost is going to be covered somewhere. Why do you think individuals have no financial responsibility regarding their own well-being? My having the new iPad will be good for my well-being, so I should get that free, too. What is disputed is that government can force any ONE or any ENTITY to provide any healthcare coverage. Let's keep this going. We both learn.
Calan March 24, 2012 at 02:39 PM
In my opinion however, I feel the order of things should be the best interest of the people at large first, & the feelings of a religious organization or its ideology should be secondary. Something to ponder, Ed, each day you & I subsidize religious organizations all across our country because of their various tax exemptions. Can you imagine how property taxes would go down if Church's were required to pay their fair share? Now, for me, I am fine with them having tax exemptions if they work for the greater good of the community. For me tho, thier opposition of this mandate goes against the greater good of the community. Btw, the one voice that has been completely absent from the national discussion of the mandate-Insurance Companies-I wonder why that is, or is it that they agree with Sebilius that better access to birth control will reduce their costs with fewer pregnancies? I know it has really gotten off on a tangent from the original Post, & I apologize for that. I still feel very strongly that in order for each of use to have inalienable rights and be able to determine our own futures, laws should be to least restrictive and various groups and religions need to understand that it is unfair and wrong for them to apply their narrow view to the population at large. Giving people the opportunity is not the same as limiting the opportunity and the Church tries too hard to limit opportunities. A mandate removing a co-pay does not limit or restrict.
Calan March 24, 2012 at 03:17 PM
The constitution does not require liability insurance for car drivers either, but the government requires that every car driver have liability insurance and further the government mandates what is considered the minimum requirement for that insurance. The government mandating that all health care insurance provide mammograms, pap smears, birth control and a few other health services at no co-pay, or changing pre-existing condition clauses or other items as being part of the basic level of coverage for all health insurance plans is certainly no different. Ultimately, I do think it will come down to the SCOTUS to determine if the personal mandate of the ACA is constitutional. My feeling is based on precedents of inter state commerce and others it will be upheld. I also think that based on the precedents of conscientious objectors and sep. of church and state that any challenge to the recent HHS mandates will fail. But then if a Blunt Amendment style law was to pass then it would be a whole new round of opposition I think, and in turn could open a whole new can of worms going back to conscientious objector issues on taxes. I think that if it comes down to Military Budget vs. HHS Mandates, the military budget will win out with conservatives, and they would drop opposition to the HHS mandate in a heart beat.
Ed Lambert March 24, 2012 at 03:43 PM
Calan, keep in mind the distinction between the federal government and the sovereign states regarding liability insurance. The US Constitution leaves such details up to the states. Tenth Amendment. Likewise, healthcare. Yes, the misuse of the "Commerce" clause in the Constitution has been going on for decades. This is the first time, however, that socialists are demanding that the clause be used to require an entity to buy something. That's what the fight's all about. I agree that the military budget must pay its fair share to reduce the debt and deficits. Income tax is now part of the Constitution. People are free to leave the country for another place to live if they dispute the tax That, or pass another amendment. HHS mandates can be overturned even by this president. Regulations are not part of ACA; they are instruments to carry out ACA. The present HHS mandates are exactly what the Socialist-in-Chief wants, as does his oh-so-Catholic Sebelius.
Ed Lambert March 24, 2012 at 03:59 PM
"I feel the order of things should be the best interest of the people at large first, & the feelings of a religious organization or its ideology should be secondary." - Calan Is it in the best interest of society to force it to accept a program that it does not want, especially since there is no Constitutional requirement for it? The entire debate is about this very "best interest," Calan. The ideology of a religious organization is not secondary. First Amendment. I don't think there's a Constitutional argument for freeing religious bodies' property from taxes. Certainly there's a strong case to be made for taxing everything but the actual worship space. However, this is a STATE issue, not a FEDERAL matter. Perhaps insurance companies are being heard. In any event, companies do not provide anything for free; it's being paid by someone. "Laws should be least restrictive." Agreed! So why is government meddling in private individuals' and companies' business? No religious body is attempting to force its "narrow view" on anyone else. It is attempting to exercise its First Amendment right. Birth control is no different from the presumption about every other "right" to purchase a good or service. One must allocate funds according to a priority. Is a new car at the top of the list? Is cable tv further down the list? Choose when you decide where to spend your money. Birth control is not "healthcare." Neither is abortion-on-a-whim.


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