A line of cars drives up North Street in Harrisburg, a few blocks from the state Capitol building, during a protest of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts say stay-at-home orders shouldn’t lift until the state has a robust plan for testing and contact tracing (Capital-Star photo).
To all those out there who are parading and protesting and shouting to any nearby television camera, “Don’t take our God-given rights,” I say Back off!
The “rights” so cavalierly crowed about do not come from God; they come from man through the institution of government.
Before tagging me with the godless-secular-humanist badge and pinning it on me and my ideas, let me share some of my bona fides. I consider myself a person of faith, having been actively involved in church and other religious groups for my entire 72 years.
I have been teaching Christian education and biblical studies since I was 16. I have served in leadership and other capacities at the local, synodical, and national church levels. I have studied at a nearby Lutheran seminary. Most important, I make my personal and political decisions based upon the tenets of my Christian faith. I strive to live an evangelical—that is, spreading the Good News of the Gospel—lifestyle.
Now back to the matter at hand.
If they’re questioned about the source of these God-given rights, these complainers no doubt will offer this sentence from the preamble of the Declaration of Independence: 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. “It’s right there in the Declaration of Independence,” poster toting (for instance, “Sacrifice the weak. Reopen TN”) flag wavers will spew. And it is; however, this statement has no legal jurisdiction.
The Founding Fathers commissioned the young Thomas Jefferson to craft an apology—that is, a rationale—for mounting a revolution against the British monarchy and its tyrannical practices waged against the colonists.
This inspiring piece of prose was and still is not a legislative order; it is an explanation and an airing of grievances. Besides, these unalienable rights cited are not original with Jefferson; he based them upon the work of John Locke, an Enlightenment era philosopher whom Jefferson studied and admired.
Locke originally identified these fundamental natural, not Creator-endowed, rights as “life, liberty, and property.”
Jefferson, a man of the Enlightenment, too, substituted the phrase the pursuit of Happiness for Locke’s concept of property, which Locke and others had used to describe freedom of opportunity as well as the duty to help those in need. Perhaps our true patriotic duty is to work together to help fulfill another phrase in the Declaration, all men are created equal. I have not seen that statement on any protesters’ signs.
Also, as I wrote in a previous column about people misusing God and religion to further reprehensible practices, many of the Founders who commissioned the Declaration were Deists, not Christians. The deist view holds that a supreme being created the universe and then withdrew, not intervening in any way in the affairs of the world. A supreme being who does not interpose in worldly matters certainly would not grant rights to a particular people in a particular place.
The document that does grant rights to the nation’s citizenry and does wield legal authority is the Constitution of the United States, ratified on June 21, 1788.
The U.S. Constitution, too, has a preamble: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The prologue makes no mention of God or Creator or Supreme Being; in fact, the word God does not appear anywhere in the document—in no article, in no amendment, nowhere. It is We the People of the United States who confer the rights and privileges and responsibilities under which our citizenry lives.
God, in whatever form or substance one believes, does not bestow rights as we understand them politically, but God does speak commands to humankind as models for how to live together.
Those from the Judeo-Christian tradition know the greatest command as The Golden Rule, “Love your neighbor as yourself” or “Do to others what you want them to do to you.”
This precept is found in the teachings of all the world’s great religions: from Islam, “As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don’t do to them”; from Taoism: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss”; from Buddhism: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful”; from Baha’i faith: “And if thine eyes be turned towards justice, choose thou for thy neighbor that which thou choosest for thyself,” and others.
The chanting hordes railing against the purported loss of God-given rights and for the “right” to live as they want to obviously are not living out the injunctions that do come from God.
If they were, they would not be putting vulnerable people at risk with behaviors that encourage the spread of the deadly virus. As I perceive God, God wants people to live full, healthy lives; God does not want conduct that endangers people, even something like entombing crowds of vulnerable individuals in church buildings that can serve as perfect breeding grounds for COVID-19. Such demands come not out of allegiance to God; they are manifestations of the divisive and destructive “Me First and Others Be Damned” attitude, another virus that has infected our nation.
If God had bestowed a series of rights to people of the world, I suspect it would resemble the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights with such guarantees as:
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services”;
“Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory”; “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination”; and finally “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person,” although I am doubtful that security of person, which means self-protection, includes the necessity of wielding an AT-4 anti-tank weapon and two pistols while ordering a ham on nine-grain bread with tomatoes, Swiss cheese, and mayo sandwich at a Subway.
As wonderful as my home is and as lovely as my cellmate is, I am eager to engage with others outside my household. I miss greeting a friend or a stranger with a handshake. I want to hug my grandchildren. I am ready to remove the onus of grocery shopping from my daughter and son-in-law. I am itching to resume the traveling to other places that our retirement lives have afforded us.
However, I do not feel that God has given me the right to do any of these things. What God has given me—and to everyone—is the opportunity to live in ways that engender care and love for others so that all of God’s/Allah’s/Waheguru’s/et al people live in true freedom and fulfillment.
That should be our new normal.
Opinion contributor Lloyd E. Sheaffer, a retired English and Humanities teacher, writes from North Middleton Township, Pa. His work appears monthly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected].
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