RETHINKING RIGHTS: FINAL “FINAL THOUGHTS” ON THE PRESIDENT’S INAUGURAL

Well, it’s been a good two weeks since I last posted, and that might as well be two years from the perspective of perpetual connectivity that defines the blogosphere.  Sorry about that.  We’re running a job search for a new U. S. historian at Wheaton, and that has been tremendously time consuming. We’re also addressing last-minute logistics for a distinguished visiting lecturer, Clemson University Professor Vernon Burton, who will be on campus next week delivering two public addresses pertaining to the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.  These are good tasks to have, but they have absorbed most of my extra time and energy.

I know that I promised in my last post that I was through with President Obama’s inaugural address, but it turns out I was wrong.  (My students will tell you that I have a habit of offering multiple “final” points in my lectures, repeatedly raising and then dashing their hopes of getting out of class early.)  One of the axioms that I bring to my teaching is that an effective way to stretch the mind is to challenge the heart.  This is because the kind of thinking that has the potential to be truly transformative comes most naturally when something we feel deeply about is called into question.  One of my students put it this way in a recent reflection: “In my own historical study I have found that the issues that carry an emotional component are the ones that I study the best. . . . I pour so much more time and energy and thought into a subject that pulls at my heartstrings.”

I mention this because I sense that in a previous post I struck a nerve with a few readers.  (See “The Rhetoric of the President’s Address—Digging More Deeply.”)  We are so deeply immersed in our contemporary “rights” culture that it is hard for us to imagine an alternative.  We take for granted that we have inalienable natural rights, and our main argument with the unbelieving culture around us involves the question of where those rights come from.  This puts us in the ironic position of citing the Deist son of the Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson, to remind the culture that our rights are not suspended in a vacuum, but that they have been given us by our Creator.

One of the key principles in thinking historically is remembering the crucial importance of context.  We engage the past in search of wisdom for the present, but if we are to understand rightly what the past has to say to us, we first need to understand the ideas that we encounter in their historical context.

Jefferson’s reference to “inalienable rights” that include “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” comes almost verbatim from the late-seventeenth-century political philosopher John Locke.  Scholars disagree about Locke’s private religious beliefs, but we can agree that much of Locke’s public argument contradicted orthodox Christian doctrine.  Most notably, Locke overtly denied Paul’s teaching in Romans 2 that God has inscribed His law in our hearts.  God has given us no conscience or innate sense of right and wrong, Locke argued.  Our primary gift from God at birth is the faculty of reason, and He intends for us to rely on reason in determining how we are to treat one another.

According to Locke, the process of discovering the “law of nature” and the inalienable rights that ensue is a process of applying reason to experience.  It is also, at its heart, a process of the rational pursuit of self-interest.  By nature, none of us wants to be killed, or enslaved, or have our property stolen, Locke theorized, and over time we logically conclude that one of the ways we protect ourselves from such a fate is to refrain from killing, enslaving, and stealing the property of others.  If most individuals exercise such self-control, the societies we form will be societies in which we are more likely to get what we want, which is actually a pretty good definition of “right” as Americans currently employ the term.  (I am reminded of historian Robert Wiebe’s definition of “right” in his book Self-Rule: that “delightful euphemism for ‘what I want.’”)

One of the commentators to my earlier post acknowledged that the language of “rights” is not prevalent in the Bible but asked if I was trying to argue that anything not expressly spelled out in scripture was, by definition, unchristian.  Not at all.  My point is simply that we have not thought very deeply about the concept of rights, and that because ideas come to us embedded in historical contexts, we ignore those contexts at our peril.  If we thought more deeply about the context of Jefferson’s assertion, we might understand more readily how it is that the principles of the Declaration have come to justify a radically individualistic vision in which the autonomous individual is the constituent element of society and all other social groups (family, church, community) must defer to the individual and the paternalistic state that protects him.

Thinking Christianly about the Declaration, we might conclude that Jefferson’s “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal” is true in certain respects but not in all.  Here let me end by quoting at length from Christian political scientist James Stoner’s 2005 essay “Is there a Political Philosophy in the Declaration of Independence?”  According to Stoner, the “self-evident truths” in the Declaration

do not give an adequate account of the family, the fundamental institution of social life. . . . The family is built not around equality, but around the inequality of parent and child.  Precisely the most basic meaning of Jefferson’s statement of equality—that no man is the natural ruler or the natural subject of another—is not true of this relation, for the parents are surely the natural rulers of their dependent children.  [Beyond this,] the family is first and foremost not about rights, but about duties; even the right of children to care and education is abstract and vague compared to the duties of parents to provide and instruct and the duty of children to obey and learn. . . . [Furthermore,] the end of the family is only incidentally the security of rights; it is principally provision and nurture in an environment formed by love.

Much food for thought here.

One response to “RETHINKING RIGHTS: FINAL “FINAL THOUGHTS” ON THE PRESIDENT’S INAUGURAL

  1. Great article.

    I definitely feel the pressure that you refer to “…that might as well be two years from the perspective of perpetual connectivity that defines the blogosphere.” I feel as if I don’t write every few days that everyone will think I died or gave up, and they will never come back.

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