People who have read and pondered the articles I’ve posted here over the years have undoubtedly noticed my consistent reliance on the principles and logic of the American Declaration of Independence. Many of America’s self-professed conservative political leaders fail to think through and uphold the Declaration’s tenets. This may yet prove to be a flaw fatal to the prospects of liberty. Is this failure the result of incompetence? Or is it a matter of malicious choice? Whatever the explanation, in spurning the Declaration they discard the Providential gift that has been and remains America’s defining and most essential moral resource.
The heart of most Americans still responds to the understanding of justice conveyed in the Declaration’s most famous words. particularly its acknowledgment that “all men are created equal”. The Declaration’s words still move even those avowedly committed to the socialist degradation of America’s character and institutions. We see new proof of this in the inauguration speech just delivered by the idol they have lifted up to be the historical focal point for consummating that degradation. Barack Obama has consistently used a rhetorical device wherein he cites or alludes to the Declaration’s words even as he advocates and implements an understanding of government that contradicts the Declaration’s logic. He did so again last week.
“What makes us exceptional” Obama said, “what makes us American, is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: “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.
Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.”
The observation that all men are created equal is set apart in the Declaration as the first principle of right. By acknowledging that it depends upon the authority of the Creator, the Declaration avows the transcendent basis for human equality, which makes sense as a matter of fact only as a statement of moral, rather than material truth. But whatever notion of history Obama may invent, the American Declaration of Independence does not say that “freedom is a gift from God”. Rather, it lists “liberty” as one of a number of “unalienable rights” with which the Creator endows humanity.
The word “unalienable” means “not to be separated, given away or taken away….” So, far from being a “gift of freedom”, an “unalienable right” involves a limitation on human freedom. The difference is easily perceived. As an unrestricted gift, for instance, life might be considered a matter of choice; something people are morally permitted to give or take (in gladiatorial combat, for example, or by assisted suicide) as they choose. But as an unalienable right, one’s own life is not to be willfully terminated (suicide) nor is another’s innocent life to be purposely taken away (as by abortion or any other form of willful murder). Though easily comprehended, this difference between unalienable right and freedom is by no means trivial. John Locke (the English philosopher whose Second Treatise of Civil Government profoundly influenced the logic of the Declaration) relies upon it when he argues against the once widely accepted notion that the sovereign power of human government, because it is supreme, is absolutely arbitrary (and therefore inherently tyrannical):
“First, it is not nor can possible be, absolutely arbitrary over the lives and fortunes of the people; for it being but the joint power of every member of the society given up to that person or assembly which is legislator, it can be no more than those persons had in a state of nature before they entered into society, and gave up to the community; for nobody can transfer to another more power than he has in himself, and nobody has an absolute arbitrary power over himself or over any other, to destroy his own life or take away the life or property of another.” (Chapter XI)
The logic Locke relies upon is elegantly simple: human government cannot lawfully contain a power that humanity (human nature) does not.
As an inseparable feature of our humanity, God endowed unalienable rights implement this logic. They arise from the determinations whereby the author of our humanity formed and informed the particular way of being that makes us human. They correspond to the natural traits and inclinations that sustain and preserve human nature, for individuals and for the species. These traits and inclinations result in actions that are right in the sense that they contribute to the preservation of our nature.
But one aspect of our Creator endowed nature is that we are free to follow or resist the information God provides. We can accept or reject the right actions that, according to the Author of our being, preserve and sustain our nature. We can choose for or against His authority. When what we do respects the Creator’s authority, it is an exercise of unalienable right. When what we do contravenes that authority, it is the perpetration of wrong, quite literally a crime against human nature. Thus the difference between unalienable human rights and humanly intolerable wrongs does not depend on our choice but on choices already made by our Creator. Therefore the exercise of right does not refer to our freedom (i.e., our capacity for choice) but to the use that we may rightly make of it. We exercise unalienable right only when we choose to do that which respects the authority of the Creator. His being and will, not ours, are the source and standard of right from which the unalienable rights of human nature take their name.
Contrary to Obama’s insidious perversion of the Declaration’s logic, unalienable rights are self-executing, since they are exercised (carried out) whenever human beings, pursuant to the goodwill inherent in their nature, do what is right as God gives them to see the right. This is what the Apostle Paul (Romans 2:15) refers to when he speaks of those who “by nature do what the law requires”, thus showing that “the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness…” Just government is the work of these people of goodwill, the self-executors of “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” as they pertain to human affairs. These are the people who come together with one another (convene) in civil society in order to ordain and establish lawful government.
Though he ascribes the gift of freedom to God Obama evokes the authority of history in order to assert that God’s gift is fatally inoperative. But history records the actions of all people, regardless of their respect for the will of the Creator. It speaks, therefore, without respect for the distinction between those who acknowledge God-ordained right and act accordingly, and those who do not. History therefore makes no distinction between government by thugs, imposed by criminal force, and government by people of goodwill, exercising right as God gives them to see the right. Seen from this ungodly historical perspective, it is accurate to conclude that no security comes with the so-called gift of freedom. But why, on that account would any but the most powerful regard it as a gift?
Obama’s speech corresponds quite literally to those who are spoken of in the Bible as “traitors…having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof…” (2 Timothy 3:5) Obama replaces the power of godliness with government power, wielded without regard for God-endowed unalienable rights. He shows no respect for the power of right action that flows through God’s provision of individual conscience and goodwill, to all individuals inclined by their goodwill to fulfill the God ordained obligations from which their rights derive. Like the elitist faction he represents, Obama holds out, to morally vulnerable individuals, an inoperable promise of freedom. He uses this empty promise to distract them from the fact that he is discarding the God empowered notion of unalienable right which the Declaration evokes to constrain and thereby legitimize government power (i.e., keep it within the limits of God’s law).
By contrast, in response to the true logic of the Declaration Americans recognize the all sufficing Providence of God. They accept God’s provision of conscience, made for all humanity, which operates through the individual goodwill that gives rise to the exercise of right. By the true logic of the Declaration, Americans understand that to secure this exercise of right, the people delegate just powers (i.e., powers limited by respect for God-endowed right) to government in order primarily to assure that wrongdoers will suffer the consequences of their disrespect for God-endowed right.
Contrary to Obama’s treacherous prevarication, God’s provision for the implementation of natural law is humanly “self-executing”. God made it so when he reprogrammed human nature with a new imperative, after the Great Flood: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed.” (Genesis 9:6). With this imperative He delegates to human beings the power of execution originally reserved to God alone (Genesis 4:15). He arms conscience with the motive power of righteous indignation. And by instituting human action that naturally calls for the use of deadly force, he authorizes people to prepare and equip themselves for its use.
This is the Biblical verification for John Locke’s recognition that, when they act with respect for “the laws of nature and of nature’s God”, everyone “has the right to punish the offender and be the executioner of the law of nature.”
“… [F]or the law of nature would be in vain if there were nobody that in that state of nature had a power to execute that law and thereby preserve the innocent and restrain offenders.” (Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Chapter II)
Thus the original for the essential power of government is an individual right, antecedent to any institution of government except that of Almighty God. Yet with the Declaration’s acknowledgment of God’s authority still fresh upon his lips, Obama avows that the lesson of history refutes the priority the Declaration gives to God-endowed individual right. He thus seeks to turn America’s deep attachment to the Declaration’s self-evident truths against the purpose of just self-government, the very form of government whose unprecedented success the logic of those truths made possible. If Obama’s sleight of hand succeeds, the great American tragedy will ultimately be acted out in the history of America’s demise.