Category Archives: Rights Reason & Religion

Let Freedom Ring

The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

 

“Liberty has never come from Government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of it… The history of liberty is a history of limitations of governmental power, not the increase of it.”

             Woodrow Wilson

He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from opposition; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach himself.

             Thomas Paine

What is the right to Liberty, and how should the government protect and provide for it? 

I have spent time, off and on, over the past week trying to find the words to answer this question.  My best thoughts amount to this: liberty, as we refer to it in terms of government and it’s citizens, is the space provided by the government, by which the citizens are allowed to explore and appreciate the ambitions of their hearts.  Where this space exists, there is liberty; where it is absent, there is tyranny.  The greater the space, the greater the liberty: every additional intrusion by the government into the private lives and personal governance of it’s citizens is a stripping of liberty.

Should the space be absolute, should the government be entirely restricted from inserting itself into our lives?  The answer is obviously no!  We are a people of law, and our government exists to protect us and allow us the peace necessary to make the space of liberty a good thing.  Liberty without a government is not unlike the freedom of being homeless: with nothing to tie you down, the world is open to you; however, there is also nothing to shelter you from the harsh reality of the world.  We need a home to protect us; in the same way, we need a government to serve as a safe-guard against the unfetered wrath of nature. 

However, just as we would not be shut-in to our homes, never to venture out and appreciate all that the outdoors has to offer, so we will not be so encompassed in the safety of our government that it becomes impossible to enjoy the joys that exist apart from the government.  Our government’s good is not the only or even the best good.  We should not be limited to the vision of even a democratically elected representative for our future.  Our personal prosperity, so closely tied to our ability to explore and expand our horizons, is not and should not be the priority of the government; the consequence of this reality, however, is that we need the government to give us a free hand to pursue prosperity.  Less government oversight and regulations actually means broader horizons, and while there should be some safeguards, a nation where each individual is expected to make for themselves the most of the opportunities we have all been given is a nation of greater accountability and responsibility.

Our personal excellence should be allowed to flourish; likewise, we must also be permitted to pay the price of failing. 

This last point might seem controversial.  Where is the compassion in a government that allows it’s citizens to fail, and fail brutally?  It’s a fair question…my answer is, the government’s role is not to show compassion to it’s citizens.  That is the place of the citizens; we should (and do) minister to fellow citizens in need.  In fact, charitable giving is higher when the government taxes it’s people less. 

The happy result of having fewer government intrusions and restrictions to our livelihood is citizens who are more self-sufficent, more personally responsible, and more charitable.  Liberty is not merely the privelege of a free society; it is integral for the survival and flourishing of such a society.  Less government, more freedom!

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Opening the Box

In many ways a discussion on the nature of life is a tricky thing.  This is because, as Lang points out, such questions are huge and answering them “correctly” requires more time and room than we here have.  Still, as Lang has bravely offered her thoughts on this natural right and the implications for a government whose stated purpose is the protection of this right, I will do my best.

In short, our right to life is simply that: we have the right to live.  This is a right endowed to us by the Creator, and as our life springs from His original miracle, it is deserving of our protection.  We are created equal in our capacity and possession of this right; in that sense, it is inalienable.  For all mankind, this is a fundamental right, one that cannot be taken from us justly without cause.  As with all rights, this right can be revoked if our actions warrant it; but that is a matter of the law, and not one that should ever be determined based on the convenience of others. 

We take the time to state this seemingly obvious reality because, as our generation bears witness, sometimes even obvious injustices are overlooked in favor of the convenience of others.  The weak and the helpless, old and the new, require that we enumerate this right, to prevent the tyranny of the strong from abusing them for our own needs.  We must insist that the law uphold the legitimate claim to life that these demographics possess, and advocate for them in the absence of justice under the law.  We cannot state this strongly or plainly enough; the cause of the unborn (and the disabled and elderly) is the most basic and fundamental responsibility of our government.  A government that permits abortion on demand is a government where the right to life is conditional at best, never inalienable.

Up to this point, unless I am greatly mistaken, Lang and I are in complete agreement.  It is, unfortunately, at this point that our paths must part; for while we agree that the right to life is the responsibility of the government to protect, I cannot unequivocally assent to the argument that “A system that promotes exploitation cannot claim to be a system that fosters the right to life.” 

I should pause; I would assent to that, if I could then assert that the suggestion that our government is such a system is at least mostly flawed.  Such a system would represent a failure to protect the right to life, as Lang’s personal anecdote bears witness.  If the default position of the government was to allow the people to live at the mercy of corporations for the simple purpose of allowing as many big companies to make money as possible, then yes, the government would have failed in it’s sacred trust to we, the people.

However, it is not so.

I am not in Fairy Land, and I have no delusions that the people do not suffer abuse from big companies; I have worked in corporate America (in insurance, actually) and I too read the news.  We all know that Big Business is very susceptible to greedy corruption, and we all agree that if possible, the government should do it’s best to prevent those business’ from grossly exploiting the people.  This has been a true Conservative postion throughout the last Century; after all TR was no friend to business tycoons.

The unfortunate reality of the sort of regulation that would be required to ensure that we all receive a fair shake from the big corporations is that it would put the state into a tyrannical position it was never intended to occupy.  Ultimately, we face a choice; to run the risk of personal corruption for the sake of allowing for personal excellence.  The argument that “Minimal government oversight and restricted government involvement may spell freedom for some, but will inevitably mean tyranny for others, usually those with the least chance of obtaining justice.” seems to forget that if the government expands oversight and restriction, we will assuredly have tyranny for all in the form of a government that has deemed itself capable of discerning what is best for us all. 

Since not even God Himself, who does know what is best for us, has forced humanity to accept governance that would eliminate injustice, the argument in favor of entrusting a body of politicians with that power seems overly optimistic to say the least. 

Our government protects our right to life, in conjunction with the other inalienable rights, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.   To protect these three, deemed equally inalienable by our founders, requires a government which balances the need for oversight with the need to get out of our way; one cannot be said to be the proper possessor of these rights if the government is perpetually in the position of manipulating  society to produce an environment of artificial of social equality.  We should pity those who have less than we do; but the government should not make it It’s business to ensure that we practice virtue.

Finally, I alluded to this earlier; I do believe the government can strip us of our inalienable rights if our behavior warrants it.  How do we determine what behavior warrant’s such a punishment?  Capital crimes; murder, rape; I am fairly traditional when it comes to this question.  Once again, the power to forgive is reserved for we the people; individuals may practice mercy and pity.  The state exists so that I don’t need to take up the sword in my own defense; if I am wronged, I need to be able to count on appropriate justice being served for the crime committed.  It seems criminally wrong that we allow convicted criminals sentenced to death to live on the money of law-abiding tax-payers as they try to search for any loop-hole in the legal process that ended in their sentence for years on end; or that we shoud prefer the sentence of life in prison over the death penalty because it often better accomplishes the goal of keeping the convicted criminal away from the populace. 

I do not think we should relish the deaths of anyone, even the worst criminals.  I have taken a long road to get to this position; like Lang, my natural tendency is to reach for the sword rather than the Bible when I see injustice.  However, I do believe my first duty is to reach for the Bible; and thus my argument is that, as this is my duty, it is entirely appropriate to recognize what the responsibility of the state is, with regard to balancing the scales of justice. 

I have been thinking about this post for too long, which is part of the reason it has taken so long to get it on-line.  It is a difficult topic; I have no delusions that I have offered the best answer; merely my best thoughts on a hard subject.

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Calling on Mulready

I’ve posted my response to the Honorable Justice Mulready’s question ‘What is the right to life?’, and we’ve had a lively debate in the comments on the post.  I’d love to hear more of your thoughts (and debate Mulready a bit more!), but I’m also interested in his definition of the next inalienable right.

I must admit, I feel a little awkward initiating the disucssion at this point.  This morning, my pastor wisely (and rightly!) reminded us that the Declaration of Independence is not perfectly sound theology.  The inalienable three, while good guides for a secular government, are not the highest calling of Christians.  Paul’s exhortation in II Corinthians 4:17 that “our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” is a much better guide for our action.

But we’re talking of a secular state.  So I ask Mulready, as we continue our conversation of the right to life, what would you define as the right to liberty?

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Above my pay grade

Yes, the title is a cheap joke.  But I’m in the midst of submitting grades for the quarter, maintaining props for a major theatre production, and writing a thesis for my graduate degree, so I’m in need of some frivolity.  And I am, as a historian, merely a social scientist, living in a culture that values only hard science.

Mulready asks ‘what is the right to life?’  My concise answer: a lot more than the pro-life movement champions.

I was in DC for the inauguration, and on the day when my students and I were scheduled to meet our local House representative on Capitol Hill, the annual March for Life crowded the National Mall.  We arrived just in time for the scheduled concert, and even joined with the various groups marching for the cause of the unborn.

It burdened my heart, however, to see something ugly in that march for what I believe in.  The hateful manner of those marching had nothing to do with the cause of life.  Yes, abortion is the greatest evil of our generation, and yes, it deserves nothing but contempt.  But if we truly care about saving lives, we must change our approach.  Hate only breeds hate.  Grace is transformative, and only grace toward the opposition will change hearts and minds.

Okay, rhetorical critique aside, the question is: what is the right to life?  I have to answer with a quotation from my favorite children’s novel, because it’s in children’s stories we can most clearly see the truth.  We lie to ourselves, but not to our children, which is our saving grace.

At the end of Johnny Tremain, Esther Forbes puts a critical line into the mouth of Rab, the revolutionary hero wounded in battle who Johnny idolizes.  When asked what his sacrifice is for, Rab responds: That a man can stand up.  It’s a simple phrase, but it ecompasses great truth.

The right to life must ensure that the weak among us survive.  Darwinism was an attempt to explain observed phenomena, not an attempt to define right action for a species’ survival.  It cannot guide human action.  Of course, I’m presupposing the existence of the soul, but this is a political discussion, not yet a metaphysical one.  With that assumption, however, every human life is precious.  The unborn, who live but live within the protection of a womb, must be protected and nurtured, whether through natural or artificial means.  The weak, the ill, the elderly, must be allowed the best care possible.  We cannot lock them away in substandard care facilities, or sequester them from human society due to inconvenience.

But these should not be controversial (and if they are, I’m writing a thesis on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, so don’t give me an opportunity to unleash my research on that slippery slope here!).  I think, however, that Mulready and I might not find common ground in my next point.

A system that promotes exploitation cannot claim to be a system that fosters the right to life.

Capitalism is a flawed economic system.  Our democratic republic falls into the same moral trap.  Though some (including my esteemed colleague) might claim that it offers maximum freedom and therefore offers the most opportunity to men to act on their greatest virtues, it also rewards those who trample people on their own path to power.  Class warfare aside, what this leads to is a direct violation of the right to life.  Let me illustrate my point with a personal story.

My mother’s mother smoked like a chimney.  Everyone in her generation did, and she was a model and a local talk show host, so she had an image to maintain.  Eventually that led to cancer, as it always seems to do.  Grandma Junie didn’t have health insurance (few did at the time).  When it became apparent she was in serious medical trouble, she tried to purchase it.  The law, on the other hand, in the interest of the free market, allowed health insurance companies to act as they saw fit.  They saw fit not in the interest of aiding the sick, but rather in aiding their pocket books.  They had the power to deny my grandmother treatment due to her ‘pre-existing condition.’  Before they would insure her, they claimed, she would need to go without treatment for six months.  Because she was not independently wealthy, she did.

It killed her.  My grandma Junie died of bone cancer, which had matastasized from lung cancer to breast cancer to bone cancer in the six months without treatment.  On the day of her death, she sneezed and broke ribs from the force of it.  It was painful, degrading, and completely unnecessary.

Did my grandmother kill herself by smoking cigarettes?  Without engaging in a debate on the ethics of the tobacco lobby’s advertising, I’ll admit yes, she did.  Did that justify this painful, humiliating death?  I can’t see how it did.

I realize this is an extremely personal example, and I’ve had more than one person tell me that they literally couldn’t argue with me because I had such a personal, emotional connection to it.  But isn’t that just avoiding the point?  People die because we venerate the free market over human experience.  People suffer so we can retain our economic freedom.

This isn’t the right to life.  It’s the right to stuff.

The last thing Mulready asked was about the government’s right to take a life.  This is hard for me.  I have a rather violent personality.  An eye for an eye makes a lot of sense to me, and grace seems strange.  As a historian, I’m fairly well-acquainted with what evils man is capable of committing.  And that leads me to crave violence in response.  That’s why I don’t let myself see movies like Taken or Last House on the Left.

Why?  Because I know the Gospel is more powerful than my desire for vengeance.  It makes no earthly sense to me, but the sacrifice of Alban, whose head was displayed on the battlements of a Roman fort, means more than a father’s brutal vengeance of his daughter’s abuse.  I want to cheer on Liam Neeson in Taken, but it is more True to pray for the transformation of the villain.  I want catharsis – Christ offers regeneration.

Should the state kill its citizens for the sake of the safety of the rest of them?  Pragmatically, yes.  But I’ve never been a pragmatist.  Killing the enemy doesn’t make anyone truly safe.  Transforming him into a friend does.  As a Christian, I believe this is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit, but the moment we adminster the lethal injection, or fire the bullet at the terrorist, we end the possibilty that the transformation will ever occur.  And, given the fallibility of the state, the idea of denying that possiblity in even one life frightens me.

What is the right to life?  It is, first of all, the right to the vital elements that sustain it: food, shelter, air, and the like.  But in a bountiful country such as ours, it is also the faciliation of that life.  It is its protection economic, environmental, medical and otherwise.  It is the encouragement of a system that recongnizes these needs and promotes their exercise.

Yes, that’s vague.  Necessarily so.  But we must do it, so ‘a man can stand up.’

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The Inalienable Three

As is no doubt clear, the desire to post regularly vies with the priorities of the rest of our lives.  Hopefully we will manage a fairly regular discourse until we get to Summer, when our schedules might become a little more free.

However, my thoughts are never far from the issues we would like to address and discuss here, and positing a good question and allowing it to brew can often be more worthwhile than opining with frequent regularity (notice my subtle attempt to paint our infrequent posts as a clever exercise in restraint). 

On that note, I offer the next subject for our joint review: to express, as best we can, the meaning of the inalienable rights and what the government should look like to best promote and protect those rights.  Rather than try to envelope all three into one post, lets take it one issue at a time (although it will likely become apparent that these right are, apart from inalienable, somewhat co-dependant and support one another); let us begin with the Right to Life.  What is it?  How should the government establish and defend it?  Who is qualified to appreciate it?  Are there circumstances in which the government could (and possibly should) have the ability to take it away?

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