Our Rights Come from Nature and God, Not Government‘ ~ Paul Ryan (Republican Vice president acceptance speech, Norfolk, VA  – 8/11/2012).

From a political standpoint I suppose Ryan may have the Declaration of Independence to back up such an idea, and has done so previously, and subsequently, most recently in his speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention. I’m not entirely sure, however, that this is what the opening passage of the Declaration is saying:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

It’s never been entirely clear what Jefferson meant by ‘Nature’s God’. He seems to be affirming that the idea of independence is grounded in natural law and the God who gave us that law, but it’s unclear. Nevertheless, in the next passage of the Declaration it says:

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, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Actually the phrasing ‘that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights‘ was not part of Jefferson’s original draft which stated, ‘that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable.‘ It was changed by Benjamin Franklin, who was a member of the writing committee. Nevertheless, like Jefferson’s use of ‘Nature’s God’, Franklin’s use of ‘Creator’ is equally vague. They certainly could be interpreted as references to God, but it is never explicitly stated in the Declaration. Other references to God appear in the Declaration as ‘Supreme Judge of the World’ and ‘divine Providence’.

The Founding Fathers certainly seemed to have avoided using simply the word ‘God’ intentionally. While the Declaration certainly reflects a theistic attitude prevalent in the American colonies, the absence of specific references to God, Jesus Christ or the Bible certainly causes one to ponder at their motives. Ah to be a fly on the wall at the 2nd Continental Congress… At any rate, the Declaration of Independence seems to say that Rights are endowed by a ‘Creator’, ‘Nature’s God’, ‘Supreme judge of the World’, or ‘divine Providence’, but that Government’s secure these rights. So, Ryan’s statement is accurate from a certain point of view with regards to the Declaration of Independence. It’s always hard to disagree with the Founding Father’s and a document they worked hard to make an important statement with some 236 years ago.

Various Rights were a common topic in the writings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.  Specifically, Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’ and Locke’s ‘Treatise on Government’. For an interesting compare and contrast, see Locke versus Hobbes. Although they were both social contract theorists, they had very different perspectives. Basically, Locke thought men have natural rights by the very nature of their being, while Hobbes thought you concede your rights to the government in return for order in society. This raises the interesting question, and maybe more to the point, of Natural and Legal Rights. Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are natural Rights, or inalienable – that which is inherent and cannot be given away, while freedom of speech and the right to bear arms, such as in the Bill of Rights, are legal rights. As Justice Robert Jackson declared, “The very purpose of a Bill of Rights is to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts.” ~ West Virginia State Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 638 (1943). Interestingly, the Bill of Rights implicitly legally protected only white men, and excluded American Indians too – A big mistake by the Founding Father’s. Nevertheless, it seems important to know the context whenever Rights are mentioned.

I think part of my point here is that the language in the Declaration of Independence is sort of philosophically complex and open to interpretation, but something that has real substance and relevance. Human rights, in particular, is something special that is at the core of American culture, and something we shouldn’t marginalize, despite the cultural changes that have come about since the Declaration was written. I don’t have a stake in anything Ryan said (biased toward Democrat or Republican) and not sure I will even vote this time around for President in 2012, but I would love to see a debate on Ryan’s statement without all the political rhetoric. It is an important topic and that would be something interesting indeed for a debate in a modern context of what Rights mean today! Let’s ask the deep questions like: Where do rights come from? Think about it and what this means to you, our country and the rest of humanity, whatever political systems they live under.

For an interesting discussion on Natural Rights see: Thomas Jefferson Hour (Show 911 – Natural Rights)

Here are some links for further reading:
God and the Declaration of Independence
Where do we get our rights?
Rights You Can’t Give Away
The alienable and the inalienable

Inalienable rights
Human rights/Privileges

Just as an aside, not particularly related, but to end with something humorous, I heard someone on a documentary say that if there was a government coverup on UFO’s, then they have done this better that they do anything else. That’s quite funny! Hmmm, do we have a Right to know what the Government is hiding on UFO’s? Now there’s an issue we could all be interested in…