Coffin, 6-26-2013

My Word: Inalienable rights simply don’t exist

JimCoffin(Orlando Sentinel, June 26, 2013)

By James Coffin

Christian apologist C.S. Lewis observed that “nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”

Case in point: Many argue that the rights the government gives can be taken away by the government. But the rights God gives are inviolable. Really?

I’ll admit that the Declaration of Independence says humans are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” These include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But if those rights were truly inalienable, and if God had already endowed them, why does the document go on to say that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men”?

Moreover, governments may execute me, incarcerate me or outlaw my favorite happiness pursuit. So how truly inalienable are these rights? What is a creator-endowed right, anyway? Was Thomas Jefferson perhaps just suggesting that God would surely endorse what the Declaration of Independence was advocating?

I believe in a benevolent God who’s into freedom, equality, justice and a long list of other social-moral “should be’s.” But at a practical level, government is the delivery vehicle for every civil/human/legal right we enjoy.

The Declaration of Independence, written in 1776, states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” But what about the slaves? What about voting rights for women?

Were the slaves freed and did women get the vote because of self-evident truths and inalienable, God-endowed rights? Or did they get those rights when government, pressured by the people, did something about it?

God’s—or anyone else’s—lists of “should be’s” aren’t the same thing as rights. Human rights don’t exist in any meaningful sense until they’re guaranteed by some human power structure.

This discussion isn’t about the existence of God. Or God’s power. Or God’s values. Or God’s commitment to human rights. It’s merely an acknowledgement that rights come from government. By definition. We need to describe this reality in precise language.

Government plays a monopoly role in determining whether human or divine “should be’s” will ever become rights. So if we the people truly value human rights, we must take seriously whom we choose to do our governing.

James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.