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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Unalienable Rights

Thomas Jefferson declared:

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.

Today we hear much about human rights and far too little about unalienable rights. What are human rights? Here is a dictionary definition:

The basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled, often held to include the right to life and liberty, freedom of thought and expression, and equality before the law.

If the word human is stuffed with the above concepts, it might do the job. But imagine Jefferson writing:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men have certain human Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The ring and cadence is gone. But more than that—the meaning is shot.

The Founding Fathers believed in unalienable rights, not human rights. There is a difference. "Human" says the rights belong to human beings and not much more. The word says nothing about the divine origin of the rights. The word says nothing about the inviolability of those rights.

When used in some settings, the word "human" focuses attention on those who have rights, not on the Giver of those rights. In other contexts, the rights are understood to be those granted by government. This suits the anti-God crowd just fine for they love words that are devoid of God-talk. It suits big government types because they view government as the fountain of all rights. Unfortunately, both views go hand-in-hand because big government advocates do not have room in their universe for a God who endows all his creatures with unalienable rights.

Imagine the Founding Fathers proclaiming to King George that they had rights—human rights. On the one hand, the monarch would scoff that he had taken away any rights they imagined they had. On the other hand, the self-conceptualizing, ever-beneficent royalty would rebuke them for not recognizing he grants rights to his subjects.

The word unalienable is a necessary modifier of rights. Jefferson told King George all men are endowed with unalienable rights, rights that are not alienable or capable of being sold or transferred. They are absolute, unchangeable, inherent, indigenous, intrinsic, native. They are inviolable, that is, not capable of being violated or infringed.

Life is a right that government cannot grant. Only God can endow each of his creatures with life. Government can destroy that life in this life, therefore, the Declaration argues, ". . . to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men. . ."

Government cannot endow a person with liberty. God endows each of his equally created creatures with liberty. Government can impinge that liberty, therefore, ". . . to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men. . ."

Governments and governors (of whatever variety) must recognize that the governed and the governors are created equal by God who endowed both with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Any other view will lead to despotism. King George had violated this fundamental fact and therefore they charged him with about two dozen wretched violations of their God-given rights which in their minds entitled them to declare independence. They were uninterested in human rights.

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