Are God-given rights the same as the rights that are offered in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence? “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.”
The Founding Fathers commissioned the young Thomas Jefferson to craft an apology—that is, a rationale—for mounting a revolution against the British monarchy and its tyrannical practices waged against the colonists.
This inspiring piece of prose was and still is not a legislative order; it is an explanation and an airing of grievances. Besides, these “unalienable Rights” cited, are not original with Jefferson; he based them upon the work of John Locke, an Enlightenment era philosopher whom Jefferson studied and admired. Locke originally identified these fundamental natural, not Creator-endowed, rights as “life, liberty, and property.”
Jefferson, a man of the Enlightenment, too, substituted the phrase “the pursuit of Happiness” for Locke’s concept of property, which Locke and others had used to describe freedom of opportunity as well as the duty to help those in need. Perhaps our true patriotic duty is to work together to help fulfill another phrase in the Declaration, “all men [and women]are created equal.”
People misuse God and religion to further reprehensible practices, many of the Founders who commissioned the Declaration were Deists, not Christians. The deist view holds that a supreme being created the universe and then withdrew, not intervening in any way in the affairs of the world. A supreme being who does not interpose in worldly matters certainly would not grant rights to a particular people in a particular place.
The document that does grant rights to the nation’s citizenry and does wield legal authority is the Constitution of the United States, ratified on June 21, 1788.
The U.S. Constitution, too, has a preamble: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Remember learning this in grade school or Jr. High?
The prologue makes no mention of God or Creator or Supreme Being; in fact, the word God does not appear anywhere in the document—in no article, in no amendment, nowhere. It is We the People of the United States who confer the rights and privileges and responsibilities under which our citizenry lives.
God, in whatever form or substance one believes, does not bestow rights as we understand them politically, but God does speak commands to humankind as models for how to live together.
Those from the Judeo-Christian tradition know the greatest command as The Golden Rule, “Love your neighbor as yourself” or “Do to others what you want them to do to you.”
This precept is found in the teachings of all the world’s great religions: from Islam, “As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don’t do to them”; from Taoism: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss”; from Buddhism: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful”; from Baha’i faith: “And if thine eyes be turned towards justice, choose thou for thy neighbor that which thou choosest for thyself,” and others.
The many who rail against the purported loss of God-given rights and for those who say they should live as they want, obviously are not living out the injunctions that do come from God. If they were, they would not be putting vulnerable people at risk with behaviors that encourage the spread of the deadly virus. As I perceive God, God wants people to live full, healthy lives; God does not want conduct that endangers people, even something like entombing crowds of vulnerable individuals in church buildings that can serve as perfect breeding grounds for COVID-19. Such demands come not out of allegiance and reverence for God, but are manifestations of the divisive and destructive “Me First and Others Be Damned” attitude in society, another virus that has infected our nation. This is why I did not restore in-person worship until we did at Pentecost.
If God had bestowed a series of rights to people of the world, I suspect it would more resemble the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights with such guarantees as:
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services”;
“Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory”; “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination”; and finally “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person,” although I am doubtful that security of person, which means self-protection, includes the necessity of wielding an AK-7 or an AT-4 anti-tank weapon and two pistols while ordering a ham on nine-grain bread with tomatoes, Swiss cheese, and mayo sandwich at a Subway.
As wonderful as my home is and as lovely as the person with whom I quarantined, my wife, during this Covid-19 pandemic, I too, like so many was eager to engage with others outside my household. I missed greeting a friend or a stranger with a handshake. I wanted to hug my grandchildren, my family, and my church family. I wanted to remove the mask when I went out or entered a grocery store. I am still itching to resume traveling to other places. I still put on my mask if it is the protocol for a household, or business establishment.
However, I did not feel that God gave me the right to do any of these things until the security of myself and others were no longer in danger. What God has given me—and to everyone—is the right of opportunity to live in ways that engender care and love for others, so that all of God’s people live in true freedom, liberty, and fulfillment. Perhaps this should be our new normal beginning this Independence Day.
I look forward to seeing you on Sunday, July 4th, the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, in-person at 8:00 AM and in-person or online at 10:30 AM. We are online on YouTube and Facebook. The file for the 10:30 AM service bulletin is below. With many blessings, I am yours always. Fr. Bill+