Let’s Talk about Unalienable Rights

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Pompeo the Pompous

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says he wants to talk about “unalienable rights.” Sure, let’s. The term comes from the Declaration of Independence, which reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men [and women] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Let’s do it. It turns out, which should surprise no one, that Pompeo has larded his new Commission on Unalienable Rights with “conservatives,” including its chair, Mary Ann Glendon, a former ambassador to the Vatican, which is already a bad start.

We have to assume, since Pompeo is a loyal Republican, that he sees this venture in entirely instrumental terms, as a device for pursuing whatever policy aims the Republicans can come up with and get the always obtuse, so called president to sign onto. There must be subterfuge involved. “Conservatives” are never honest.

He almost certainly does not know that these “unalienable rights,” as grounded in the Declaration of Independence, come directly from the founder of western liberalism, which Vlad Putin recently disparaged, philosopher John Locke. It seems unlikely that Pompeo really wants to take the part about all humans being created equal very seriously, since his racist boss obviously does not believe that.

Locke stated in his theory that, before humans created formal governments, they lived in a state of nature, where everyone was equal and had what he called “natural rights,” to life, liberty, and property, which Thomas Jefferson revised to “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, but the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution uses the original in guaranteeing to every “person” the right to due process of law. In the state of nature, everyone is completely free, but rights are very precarious, since every person has to defend her/his own rights alone, or perhaps with the help of family. So humans create government in order to create uniform rules, or “positive law” and mechanisms to enforce those rules. Government always has as its primary responsibility to protect the natural rights of every person. This is where “conservatives” often start to have trouble.

It is true that the Catholic Church has its own tradition of “natural law” philosophers, but none of them was remotely as influential in the United States as Locke, who was English and developed his political philosophy during the Glorious Revolution in England. Locke’s ideas permeated the British colonies of North America and clearly had far more impact on the Founders of the United States than anyone else. There were Catholics in the United States at the founding — Maryland was an explicitly Catholic colony in a sea of rabid Protestants — but the defining ethos of the new United States was decidedly Protestant, as was the wacky idea of the Founders to prohibit any official religion in their new republic.

Leading Christian conservative Tony Perkins expressed the hope that Pompeo and his commission would promote religious liberty abroad, which he characterized as the “foundation for all human rights.” That is false. Locke was a devout Christian who derived his political philosophy from his reading of the bible, but he does not address religious liberty directly in his political philosophy. He certainly believed that all persons should be free to hold and practice their religious beliefs, but his account of the state of nature leaves open the question of whether persons in this theoretical state had yet developed religion. Locke was very concrete and practical in identifying natural rights — again, he named three, the right to life, to liberty, and to property. Locke’s people in the state of nature look very concerned with survival, so it’s not clear how much time they had for religion. It is also not clear how Locke’s state of nature comports with the Christian founding myth of the garden of Eden.

Locke’s natural rights must attach to all humans, whether they practice a religion or not. Christian conservatives have a bad habit of trying to deny that the freedom of religion necessarily encompasses the freedom to be free from religion. They just assume everyone will default to Christianity and don’t quite know what to do when people refuse religion entirely, or choose any of the thousands of religions other than Christianity.

More concretely, we know from overwhelming historical evidence that, in “the Americas,” Christians, with their unwelcome invasion, paid no attention to the rights of Natives or Africans, whom they raped, pillaged, enslaved, and murdered by the millions. It is undoubtedly true that the right to religious belief and practice is central in the history of the United States and should be central to any discussion of human rights generally, but it is also true that Christians are by no means reliable in their respect for human rights. They have a long history of killing people who are not Christian, or even who are not the right kind of Christian.

Several observers have expressed the concern that this new Commission either has the purpose, or will serve, in the long run, to erode hard won advances in rights for women and for LGBTI persons. Perkins also whined about how “special interest” groups have sought to expand the meaning of “human rights.”

This proposition reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what human rights are and are all about. Really foundational to the idea of human rights is the right to freedom of expression, without which all other rights become meaningless. Government that can silence its critics can run roughshod over them in every respect. Christians have a long, ugly history of supporting various forms of censorship in their efforts to silence people with different beliefs and any idea that conflicts with their narrow, peculiar view of the world. Certainly no Christian should have the power to decide who counts as a valid group for claiming human rights. They only need to be human.

In the United States, Christians are the primary advocates of laws that strip women of their right to bodily autonomy, and LGBTI people of nearly every right, a battle they lost long ago when the Supreme Court struck down Colorado’s Amendment 2 in Romer v. Evans.

It seems reasonable, even necessary, to conclude that Pompeo’s Commission has the ulterior motive of using “human rights” as a decoy to deprive groups whom Christians don’t like of their natural rights under the Lockean definition. This is a nefarious project that anyone who really supports natural rights under the Declaration of Independence should reject.

Written by

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

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