In some of his recent speeches, Mitt Romney has come out with the claim that our rights come from God. His rhetoric may be nothing more than garden-variety pandering to a key constituency, in this case the Christian Right. Nonetheless, by associating himself with the notion that “inalienable rights,” the foundation of American liberty, came into being with God’s sanction, Romney helps to legitimize phoney history and a religiously biased framework. Advocates of such a viewpoint of course consider God to be their god, the God of the Bible. Disparaging pluralism, they appeal to one narrow religious perspective and reject all others.
Religious rightists have long tried to commandeer our founding documents for their own purposes. To make a case for Christian (or Judeo-Christian) origins, they utilize lines from the Declaration of Independence that say men are “endowed by their Creator” with inalienable rights based on the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” In actual fact, the Founders’ linkage of rights with natural law and a vague “creator” is more consistent with classical philosophers like Cicero and deists like Benjamin Franklin than it is with Christianity. The Founders’ use of the trappings of natural law is fully understandable given their inability to appeal to British constitutional traditions to justify a rebellion against the king. The purpose of their language was to unite opinion in the colonies, which was quite diverse, not to brand it with a particular denominational or religious character. Twelve years later under more favorable circumstances, they wrote a constitution that eliminated god talk altogether.
The tendency of today’s Christian conservatives to identify modern rights with the God of their religion is difficult to comprehend given that the Bible shows little interest in “rights” as such. The right of religious freedom, for example, is plainly ignored in the first two of the Ten Commandments, which dictate that a person must worship one particular God and no other. In the New Testament, Jesus is clearly concerned with faith, conduct, and salvation, not rights. The idea of individual rights evolved gradually, but modern “rights talk” did not gain traction until the advent of John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers. It was directed against the reigning absolutisms of the day, including–ironically–certain flagrant examples of Christian establishment in Europe and the American colonies.
But Mitt Romney’s latter-day acceptance of the God-rights connection is worrisome not just for its unsubstantiated basis in history and fact. More fundamentally, it opens a political can of worms about what our legitimate rights are and how they should be determined. If God is the source of our rights, rather than humans guided by experience and reason as usually assumed, then logically God’s loyal followers become the referees determining how those rights are defined. Many, if not most, citizens would be left out of the process.
By common definition, rights describe the just claims that give meaning to citizenship. The gradual extension of rights to out-groups has been central to the American story, bringing civic empowerment to African-Americans, women, laborers, immigrants, minorities, the disabled, gay people, and others in the course of some 200 years of advocacy and struggle. Christian rightists, however, seek to change that narrative, guided by their theory of God-based rights. They have signaled that many of the recent achievements in rights are illegitimate or undeserved and believe they should be restricted, if not eliminated, in accordance with religious texts. Liberty, they often assert, needs to be “ordered” within certain religiously-correct parameters.
It is not difficult to foresee how the Republicans’ newfound advocacy for God-based rights might play out in the political realm. There would likely be renewed efforts to undermine women’s right to control their own health, to frustrate the right of gay people to share the full benefits of citizenship, and to deny the right of victims of discrimination to protection, among other efforts. At the same time, the rights of religious minorities who happen to believe in the “wrong” god, particularly Muslims, would assuredly come under renewed attack, while the presumed rights of Christians to undo the neutrality of the public sphere, brandish Christian symbols in official venues, and assert religious authority in secular affairs would have a re-energized cadre of supporters.
It is bad enough that Mitt Romney has incorporated the talking points of religious extremists. His use of such language shows the limitlessness of his opportunism, which by itself warrants condemnation. But his words are especially consequential because they lend credibility to ideas that detach our constitutional traditions from their moorings and threaten the very basis of our pluralistic democracy.