John Bennison Words and Ways | 2013 | July

Unalienable Rights and the Question of a “Christian” Conscience

A Commentary for the Annual Observance of Independence Day, 2013

An artist’s stylized retrospective of Franklin, Adams and Jefferson “Writing the Declaration of Independence 1776” – oil on canvas, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930)

An artist’s stylized retrospective of Franklin, Adams and Jefferson “Writing the Declaration of Independence 1776” – oil on canvas, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930)

[A pdf copy to print and/or read is here.]

 

“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.”

 

These grand words are etched in the American consciousness, and serve as a preamble of sorts to the Constitution’s subsequent ideal goal of “a more perfect union.”  With the recent split Supreme Court decisions over voting rights and marriage equality, along with and passage of an immigration reform bill in the Senate that naysayers declare is DOA in the House of Representatives, it would appear that while progress has been made, we clearly remain a work in progress, as well.

The Continental Congress that convened in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, to ratify the Declaration of Independence consisted entirely of gentrified white male landowners, who certainly had their own particular ideas of what those rights to life, liberty and happiness consisted.  And it probably would not have included the sheer joy and bliss expressed on the faces of same-sex couples who lined up in front of San Francisco City Hall the last few days to be legally married.

Every American since this grand experiment in democracy was first envisioned has probably come up with one’s own interpretation.  The recent cover story of one news weekly [July 8th issue of Time magazine] explored how human beings – and especially Americans — seem equipped with the pursuit-of-happiness impulse by rounding up the usual suspects: money, status, kinship, health and longevity. At the same time recent polls indicate debt-ridden Ireland remains one of the cheeriest places on the planet, Canadians score significantly higher than Americans on the work/life balance satisfaction scale, and there are three times more happy people as unhappy people in war-torn Afghanistan. Here at home — though we claim to share the same God-given rights — my American dream in the pursuit of happiness may not, in point of fact, look much like any of those others; let alone that of Ben Franklin’s, John Adams’, Thomas Jefferson, or yours in reality.

Our Founding Fathers are regarded as visionaries, and men of keen insight and integrity; despite the fact we would find their attitudes then towards certain segments of our compatriots today downright abhorrent.  If pressed and asked what they meant that all men were created equal, clearly women, Native Americans, and “non-free men” (slaves) were not included.

Article I, Section 2.3 of our Constitution once declared slaves equal to 3/5 of a person. It was not a question of racial inequality or any moral laxity when it came to the question of human trafficking; but rather a compromise between the States for the purposes of taxation and representation when it came to the popular vote and what would have been regarded as the disproportionate population of the South if slaves were counted as being fully human.  So much for the kind of deal-making of which the vast majority of Americans believe a dysfunction Congress today is incapable!

What in the world were our Founding Fathers thinking (or not thinking), one might ask? What of their human conscience? Isn’t that nagging moral voice in the back of our heads something inseparable from our fundamental human nature, with which we are endowed by our Creator as well? With rights come responsibilities to act in good conscience, and for the common good as well, right?

From the outset, our Declaration of Independence from British rule included the assertion that there is something inherent in either natural law or divine providence that bestows upon every human being certain rights from which one ought not be alienated; rights that can only be denied us by some opposing human force and construct, “…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 …” is the way our Declaration of Independence puts it in that document’s very first sentence.

For the American colonies in 1776, those “corrupted powers of the earth” consisted of British rule, taxation without representation and King George III.  Nowadays, there are Americans who consider the federal government to be tyrannical in its overreach, in one way or another. So-called radicals — liberal or conservative — share this common gripe. There are those who would always defend personal rights and freedoms at the expense of what may be the common good, and vice-versa.

But for those harboring such sentiments, our Constitution provides for such freedom of speech and press, peaceful protest and lawful dissent. And, if the exercise of one’s conscience dictates one act outside the bounds of such constitutionally protected rights, we have a legal process to address that too.  Corporal Manning sitting in a military stockade, and now fugitive Edward Snowdon evading extradition, come to mind.

As we prepare to celebrate our Independence Day holiday this year the fireworks have been set off a little early with the debate over the intelligence surveillance practices of the so-called Patriot Act by a government that was established of, by and for the people.  Call them heroes or traitors, whistleblowers or hack-tivists, there are also a growing number of anti-authoritarian tech geeks who claim to be motivated less by notoriety than a certain principled conscience to which they claim to have pledged a higher allegiance.

Call them heroes or traitors, whistleblowers or hack-tivists, there are also a growing number of anti-authoritarian tech geeks who claim to be motivated less by notoriety than a certain principled conscience to which they claim to have pledged a higher allegiance.

So, what is the nature of “natural” or “divinely-bestowed” rights? What of human conscience, earthly authority, and more? And – for those of us who might consider ourselves both a red-blooded American and Christian of one sort or other — what might constitute a “Christian” conscience, based on a Jesus life-ethic?

read more