Unalienable Rights — Guest Post by Kevin Groenhagen

Unalienable Rights — Guest Post by Kevin Groenhagen

MSNBC’s MTP Daily host Chuck Todd led off his September 27 show with a claim that Alabama Republican senatorial candidate Roy Moore “doesn’t appear to believe in the Constitution as it’s written” because Moore said our rights come from God.

It wasn’t the first time a member of the mainstream media scolded Moore for suggesting our rights come from God. After Moore told CNN’s Chris Cuomo “Our rights do not come from the Constitution, they come from God,” Cuomo shot back, “Our rights do not come from God. That’s your faith. That’s my faith. But that’s not our country.”

Moore is not the first Republican to be scolded by a member of the media after suggesting our rights come from God. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan reiterated this contention several times, including during his announcement speech on August 11, 2016. “But America is more than just a place…it’s an idea,” Ryan said. “It’s the only country founded on an idea. Our rights come from nature and God, not government.” In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Ryan said, “… sometimes, even presidents need reminding, that our rights come from nature and God, not from government.”

Ryan’s declaration didn’t sit well with some, including Paul Waldman, a contributing editor for The American Prospect. “What Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence notwithstanding, this is an awfully odd notion once you stop to think about it,” Waldman wrote in a commentary posted on MSNBC’s website. “If God granted us rights like the freedom of speech, why did it take so long for Him to get around to letting us enjoy them? Why does God allow only some of his subjects to enjoy those rights, while millions or even billions live without them?”

MSNBC’s Touré offered a similar point: “[Paul Ryan] loves this line of ‘our rights come from God and nature,’ which is so offensive to so much of America. Because for black people, Hispanic people and women, our rights do not come from God or nature. They were not recognized by the natural order of America. They come from the government and from legislation that happens in relatively recent history in America. So that line just bothers me to my core.”

While Touré, an African-American, has appointed himself the voice of all minorities concerning the origin of our rights, it should be noted that Martin Luther King, Jr., the most visible spokesperson and leader in the Civil Rights Movement, agreed with Judge Moore and Speaker Ryan. Here is what King had to say on July 4, 1965 in his “The American Dream” speech:

It wouldn’t take us long to discover the substance of that dream. It is found in those majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, words lifted to cosmic proportions: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by God, Creator, with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is a dream. It’s a great dream.

The first saying we notice in this dream is an amazing universalism. It doesn’t say “some men,” it says “all men.” It doesn’t say “all white men,” it says “all men,” which includes black men. It does not say “all Gentiles,” it says “all men,” which includes Jews. It doesn’t say “all Protestants,” it says “all men,” which includes Catholics. (Yes, sir) It doesn’t even say “all theists and believers,” it says “all men,” which includes humanists and agnostics.

Then that dream goes on to say another thing that ultimately distinguishes our nation and our form of government from any totalitarian system in the world. It says that each of us has certain basic rights that are neither derived from or conferred by the state. In order to discover where they came from, it is necessary to move back behind the dim mist of eternity. They are God-given, gifts from His hands. Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent, and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality. The American dream reminds us, and we should think about it anew on this Independence Day, that every man is an heir of the legacy of dignity and worth.

The obvious rebuttal to Waldman and Touré’s complaint is that men, and not God, prevented—and continue to prevent—millions or even billions from enjoying their God-given rights. As King noted in the same Independence Day speech, “Now ever since the founding fathers of our nation dreamed this dream in all of its magnificence—to use a big word that the psychiatrists use—America has been something of a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against herself. On the one hand we have proudly professed the great principles of democracy, but on the other hand we have sadly practiced the very opposite of those principles.”

“The truth is that rights have always been government’s to withhold or guarantee as it saw fit,” Waldman continued in his opinion piece. Former Attorney General Janet Reno shared a similar sentiment when speaking before a group of law enforcement officers: “You are part of a government that has given its people more freedom…than any other government in the history of the world.” As James Bovard noted in Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty, “It is time to remind Washington that freedom is not something that the government gives the people—but something that citizens must jealously protect against the government itself.”

Unfortunately, the mistaken belief that rights and freedom come from men is not limited to those on the left. Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” has been popular amongst conservatives for nearly three decades because of its patriotic themes. However, that song has the following lyrics:

And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.

And I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me.

Men can fight and die to secure our rights. However, they cannot give our rights to us.

The leaders of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and other tyrannical governments believed, or continue to believe, that our rights and freedom come from government. However, our Founders understood if rights come from government, and not from God, then government can, as Walden suggested, withdraw those rights. If that is the case, then our Founders had no justification to declare independence from Great Britain in 1776. It would not have been possible for the king of Great Britain to violate their rights since his government would have had the exclusive power to decide which rights the colonists possessed as his subjects.

Waldman cavalierly dismisses the words “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.” However, consider the word “unalienable,” which is defined as “unable to be taken away from or given away by the possessor.” Would you prefer a system in which your God-given rights cannot be taken away or one in which your rights are determined by the whims of whomever may be in control of the government at any given time?


  1. Bob mounger

    So if our rights come from the state, then slavery is not wrong, just currently unpopular?

  2. Anon

    If the state giveth, the state taketh away.

  3. Andrew White

    Think of it another way: anyone in power can grant “rights” over that which they have power over. So if universal human rights are granted by the state, then the state is claiming to have power over right & wrong

    Tangent: if they are not granted by the state and not by a creator, where do they come from? Even if one claims they are “discovered” from nature, there’s still the problem of needing a teleology of nature. Also, this suggests that there could be innumerable human rights that we are in violation of because they are undiscovered, and that some currently discovered ones are actually wrong (c.f. Reliability of scientific method).

  4. swordfishtrombone

    Martin Luther King: “It doesn’t even say “all theists and believers,” it says “all men,” which includes humanists and agnostics.”

    I notice he couldn’t quite bring himself to extend “all men” to include atheists!

  5. Mactoul

    Does the right to have your same-sex marriage recognized by the state also God-given?

  6. Kevin Groenhagen

    “I notice he couldn’t quite bring himself to extend ”all men’ to include atheists!”

    He did. Reread it.

  7. Kevin Groenhagen

    “Does the right to have your same-sex marriage recognized by the state also God-given?”

    “What do we make of the assertion by a highly placed member of the judiciary that ‘rights not listed in the Constitution are cherished, if anything, more than the ones that are’? What is the source of such rights? Who guarantees them? Judge Reinhardt’s first example is the right to marry. But since marriage will occur only with the consent of two people, no individual can assert a right to it. Government cannot require the consent of either party, thus government cannot deliver a guarantee for it.” – Balint Vazsonyi, “America’s 30 Years War” (1998)

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