08 February 2018

Which God do rights come from?

The President said nothing distinctively obnoxious at this year's National Prayer Breakfast, though more obsessive critics are likely still scouring the transcript for proof that Donald Trump aspires not just to autocracy but theocracy as well. While it was contemptible of him to locate "God's grace" in mothers forced to work two or three jobs to support their children -- that sounds more like human sacrifice to the Market -- his speech consisted mostly of the same pious bromide any president, or at least any Republican president, might utter. That includes the typical nod to natural rights philosophy when Trump said that our rights come from God, not man. An audience consisting mostly of conventional Christians applauded this, but did they or he really understand what they were applauding? They take it for granted that when someone says our human rights come from  God, that must obviously mean the God of Abraham, the God of the Bible. Yet when Thomas Jefferson credits our inalienable rights to the Creator in the Declaration of Independence, he is almost certainly referring specifically to that more recent theoretical construct, "Nature's God." While many Christians assume that there's no difference between Nature's God and the God of the Bible, there's a very important distinction to be made and insisted upon. Deists like Jefferson believed that the existence and attributes of Nature's God could be verified through reason, perhaps with some assistance from the New Testament philosopher Jesus of Nazareth. They likewise believed that human rights, those all political entities were bound to respect on pain of revolution, could be identified through reason and attributed, being natural, to Nature's God. When most U.S. Christians hear the President say that rights come from God, they take that to be synonymous with rights coming from The Bible, but Jefferson in particular found that book often an unreliable guide to God as reason required Him to be. As for human rights, where does the Bible proclaim freedom of speech or assembly, much less freedom of religion, as we understand those concepts? What about the right to vote or the right to jury trial?  How many of these things are affirmed or even considered by Jesus? Ask yourself these questions and you'll wonder why so many people treat assertions of natural rights as vindications of revealed religion, or as something Christians should automatically endorse. Absurd as their assertions are, however, I'll take them any day over the outright Christianist garbage you see in some places that has little if anything to do with real individual liberty.

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