The Myth of ‘God-Given Rights’

“We were endowed by our creator with our rights. Not the king, not the state, but our creator.” – Mitt Romney

I heard this quote on the radio last week, and it’s been gnawing at me ever since.

The conservative/libertarian reliance on the Declaration of Independence as all but coequal with the Constitution is annoying from a historical perspective – the two documents have different aims, different authors and a different set of signers. The Declaration was written to abolish the current government, while the Constitution was written to set up a government. As a result, many of the Declaration’s signers, including its author, Thomas Jefferson, and “give me liberty or give me death” Patrick Henry refused to endorse the Constitution. They thought the government it created was too big.

So citing the Declaration of Independence as a relevant document for the current American government is annoying. Citing the deistic Creator formulation Jefferson included as a synonym for “nature” as if he really meant the all-powerful, directly involved God of the universe who is intimately involved in the lives of his children is frustrating.

But what really gets me about that line from Romney is that it’s entirely wrong.

With what rights has God endowed us? The Declaration argues that “among” such rights are the ones to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But Jefferson was making an appeal to nature, not the divine. And the fact that he was writing this in an effort to throw off a government he felt was usurping those rights makes it clear they were not divinely given; if they were, no government would be able to take them away.

But let’s look at this scripturally. Mormons consider themselves members of the Christian faith and include the Bible as one of their holy books. Where in the Bible does it indicate God has provided anybody with rights? The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t. In fact, if we take the Bible literally – and any good Republican Christian does these days – the Bible seems pretty supportive of situations in which women and slaves have no rights at all. How many times do biblical writers tell slaves to submit to or obey their masters, for example? Five times! In Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Timothy, Titus and 1 Peter. On top of that, biblical writers twice tell oppressed Christians to respect and serve the government that is depriving them of their rights (Romans and Titus). That’s a total of seven times in which the Bible basically tells people being deprived of “God-given” rights, “Don’t worry about it.”

The entire context of the Bible is within patriarchal, slave-owning cultures. Over the centuries, those taking the Bible literally have done so in support of slavery and denying women’s equality. There is no sign in this collection of ancient texts of an Enlightenment-based concept of natural rights. In fact, God’s own Law ensures the deprivation of those rights by  enshrining slavery and the treatment of women as property.

In fact, when God comes to humanity in the flesh, he says very little about government at all, despite plenty of opportunities. After all, the Roman Empire was fairly new to the scene, and the Jews chafed under its oppression. In less than 50 years, they would rise up against it in an ultimately catastrophic rebellion. Every day Jesus walked the hills of Palestine, he would have had people muttering about the government and its policies – and plenty of opportunity to talk about the natural rights with which he had endowed all men and women.

But he didn’t. The closest he gets is when he’s twice asked about taxes.

In Matthew 17, the collectors of the temple tax ask Peter if Jesus pays it. The temple tax was collected from all Jews, regardless of income, for the upkeep of the temple. As Richard Bauckham notes in his enlightening work, The Bible in Politics, the temple tax was therefore regressive; like any flat tax, the burden fell heaviest on the poor. Further, the priests in charge of the temple usually exempted their friends and family, who were of course wealthier. Jesus is fully aware of this, as evidenced by the rhetorical question he asks Peter: “What do you think, Simon? From whom do earthly kings collect taxes, from their children or from strangers?” Jesus tells Peter to pay the tax anyway, “just so we don’t offend them.”

But Jesus doesn’t have a problem with taxes in general. As he famously says in Matthew 22, when asked whether God’s Law allows Jews to pay taxes to Caesar, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

So if we are to simply take the literal words of the New Testament, the only rights with which people are truly “endowed by their Creator” are the rights to take and keep slaves and levy progressive taxes. Not exactly a support for limited government, is it?

But of course, that would be a misreading of the Bible. Because God talks quite a lot about his preferences, even if he doesn’t swoop in and overturn the institutions of this world. In his kingdom, there is no slavery or gender discrimination (Gal. 3:28), for example, and there is certainly no rich or poor. To the extent that we can make our earthy governments reflect those heavenly priorities, we do a little bit to bring God’s kingdom to earth.

In that sense, perhaps Romney isn’t too far off: There will be God-given rights. But here’s where he’s completely wrong: The only institutions authorized by God to grant those rights here and now are our governments (see Romans 13).

And if Romney is truly serious about upholding the priorities of the Creator, he should probably stop advocating tax plans that would redistribute money from the poor to the rich. Jesus doesn’t appear to be a fan of regressive taxation.

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One comment on “The Myth of ‘God-Given Rights’

  1. Jonathan says:

    Could I send you some interesting notes via e-mail to which one of my teachers attempted to make right and the Declaration biblical?

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