OCALA, Fla., July 8, 2014 — Many conservatives believe that our rights are formalized by the U.S. Constitution, but granted by God.
This creates an interesting situation, one where the faith-based self-assurance of personal religion meets the existential uncertainties of our world. It is easy to imagine all of the pinnacles and pitfalls that such a situation has to offer.
Other Americans believe that our constitutional freedoms have nothing to do with the divine. Still, the view that God grants liberty, and can take it away just as easily, remains popular with more than enough people to make an impact in major elections.
Louis Seidman, a law professor at Georgetown University, knows the Constitution far better than most. Over time, he has arrived at the conclusion that, in an orthodox sense, it is no longer necessary. Last year, his book On Constitutional Disobedience was published. As one might imagine, it was met by more than a bit of controversy.
“I think it is true that rights cannot survive in this country if the only basis for them is that people are told they have to respect the rights, whether they agree with them or not, just because someone long dead told them that they had to respect the rights,” Seidman tells CDN. “Americans have a nasty habit of thinking for themselves. If rights are to survive, people who favor them are going to have to do the hard work of persuading people that they ought to be cherished now and cannot rely on the easy and deeply authoritarian assertion that we must obey certain commands whether we think they are sensible or not.”
He adds that “most of the rights that people cherish today were not in the original Constitution. The Constitution contained no right to free speech or assembly,no right to religious freedom, no right to bear arms or protection from unreasonable searches. All these provisions were added to the Constitution against the opposition of many of the original framers.”
Beyond any of this, though, Seidman wonders “whether people who think that the Constitution was divinely inspired have looked at the actual document. For example, the original Constitution had many provisions protecting slavery by, for instance, banning legislation prohibiting the slave trade until 1808 or requiring free states to return to their masters enslaved persons who had escaped.”
Seidman isn’t alone in his views.
Sanford Levinson teaches law at the University of Texas. He is the author of Framed: America’s 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance. One of America’s leading experts on constitutional matters, he perceives the document in a strongly modernist fashion.
“I reject the divine origin of our constitutional rights,” he told CDN in 2013. “Some of them, like the right to trial by jury, surely reflect our particular culture and history and cannot plausibly be linked to any coherent notion of divine command (which would require explaining why only the US has the particular jury trial system it has). Others can be placed within the context of ‘universal human rights,’ and some people do indeed see these kind of rights as reflecting some kind of divine origin. I don’t know that it matters whether one believes they are of divine origin or ‘purely human inventions,’ since the real point is how we interpret and apply them.”
While Seidman and Levinson certainly have provocative views, how can one argue that they are irrational?
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The only means of asserting that our rights are God-ordained is to accept this notion via supernaturalistic faith. If our nation’s laws are defined by individual perceptions of the otherworld, then heaven truly will need to help us. In any case, it is a guarantee that each of us would find ourselves in a real-life hell.
Why is it so difficult to admit that humans create laws to govern fellow humans? Anyone who watches national evening news programs can see this to be the case. Our rights are the stuff of individuals, usually at the urging of peer pressure.
How on Earth does bringing God into this make sense of any kind?
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Dr. Paul Gottfried, one of America’s leading conservative thinkers,
talks about this and more on the latest Cotto & Company.
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