Friday, December 11, 2009

Inalienable Rights? False.

'Indeed I want to argue that America is the only country that has the misfortune of being founded on a philosophical mistake--namely, the notion of inalienable rights. We Christians do not believe that we have inalienable rights. That is the false presumption of Enlightenment individualism, and it opposes everything that Christians believe about what it means to be a creature.' From Stanley Hauerwas, 'Abortion: Theologically Considered'
You can find the rest of the (somewhat dated) article here. My purpose is to draw attention to the notion of subjective or inalienable rights, which is enshrined in our beloved Constitution, but which I (also) believe is a fiction, and which I think Christians ought to find theologically promiscuous.

I wrote last week about the 'Manhattan Declaration' and its wholesale, unflinching appropriation of inalienable rights as theologically based in the imago Dei. I've never been to a Bible Study where our discussion of Genesis 1, Philippians 2, heck, all of Paul's letters, devolved to the recognition that we all should have religious liberties, rights to property, and rights to download pornography and not be held legally culpable. That's meant to be provocative, yes, but it has its purpose as well. It should show us how defunct, how handicapped, how theologically nonsensical American political theology often is. And should force all of us to rethink some of our basic principles and allegiances.

I agree with Hauerwas that this was America's founding philosophical mistake. But it was also its theological mistake, borne from the good intentions of mostly well-meaning Christians. There is a not so fine line between accepting political reality as-is and having to accept the role of prophet within and against it. America in its essence implies far more theological problems than our Americanised Christianity is able, at times, to admit. I don't think that's a scholarly point either. Christians should feel that in our bones every time our fellow Christians try to justify their inalienable rights on the basis of the Gospel that calls men everywhere, at all times, daily, to die.

17 comments:

Luke said...

Hi there Ian... I don't believe we've met, but I was a friend of Jared's at Grace, and I've been following some of your articles recently and have enjoyed your writing very much.

I am, however, disinclined to go nearly as far as you have for several reasons.

1) Imago Dei is hardly a necessary scripture for the concept of rights. Classical rights are based on the idea we are God's creation and thus property, and, if I may be so tacky as to quote Thousand Foot Krutch, you may not destroy what you did not create. Whether we are property in his IMAGE merely adds to the strength of the arguement, but is not necessary.

2) Rights language is a natural development of the Natural Law Theology, for Law itself creates moral obligations or duties, and those duties create rights. If you reject rights, you must in turn jettison the Natural Law, for how can a law exist without moral obligation? By jettisoning rights you've cleaned up some of the sticky points with relativism, but in its wake you have a philosophy that must rely soley on Legal Positivism. In essence, you throw out the Aquinas baby with the Locke bathwater, and in doing so, throw out much of Romans "eternity in their hearts" and the Mars Hill address baby along with Genesis bathwater.

MMM... I fully agree that the application of these concepts is not theological, and Christians should be careful not to confuse private application with devine inspriation, but I would disagree with you that the concepts themselves are not reasonbly firmly rooted in scriture.

Anyway, great articles. Def some thought provoking stuff.

-Luke

Luke said...

Blech... please excuse the numerous and ridiculous spelling errors and typos, I forgot to proof read. I can practice either philosophy or perfect English, but apparently not at the same time. ;)

Ian Clausen said...

Hi Luke. Thanks for the feedback. I'm (obviously) going to disagree with you on this one. I don't regard rights language as the logical extension of Natural Law Theory. There is a very important distinction, a radical discontinuity I might say, between 'duties' and 'rights'. The former inhere in the natural order of things - authority that is grounded outside myself, which calls upon me to act in such and such a way. The phrase 'natural right' used to capture this nicely. I have a duty to my fellow human being which is objectively grounded in the order of things, that arises from natural law.

Human or subjective rights, on the other hand, inhere in my person, and are my possession, my claim against another. One might claim that God has specially placed these rights in my person when he created me, and indeed, this is the common way to justify them. But that is what I regard as a theological mistake. It engenders the kind of self-possession that is anathema to the Gospel, and it intrinsically cripples our ability to share communion with one another in a self-giving (and not self-positing) way.

That's why I'm not taken by your claim that natural right, 'what is right' vs. 'what are my rights', relies on 'Legal Positivism'. I'm not sure what that means in this context, but if it means to suggest that the natural order of duties and obligations has no grounding unless it is in our person, I simply disagree. It seems the reverse: human rights are the ultimate expression of positivistic legal/moral theory. Our rights are grounded in our person, which is really close to saying grounded in our will. That sort of radical voluntarism is not anywhere in Aquinas, Augustine, or St. Paul, though it is certainly in late scholasticism. But why should our theology bless it?

Thanks for your thoughts. Come back to me if you want to illumine me further.

Johnnie said...

It would be so nice, Ian, if everyone agreed with you, and I truly mean that. Boiled down, we would see that:

1) the US Constitution was written to include every kind of Christian, and every kind of every other religion, and every kind of non-religion too.

2) Christians, and everyone else, who believes that humans have no inalienable rights, are absolutely welcome to hold those beliefs here, and to live their lives accordingly.

3) But we must understand that our belief runs counter to the statements in the Constitution, and we must be ok with that. We must stop claiming that this is a "Christian nation" and must accept that laws and practices which run counter to our own religious beliefs are perfectly valid here.

We can believe America was founded on a philosophical mistake, but we must accept that those founders knew what what they were saying, and that the country we live in does not, as an official body, agree with us on that point. And then we quietly go about our business. Because this country allows us to do so.

Norman Jeune III said...

I have to say, Ian, Johnnie makes a point here which I think cannot be ignored. I must first admit that I have not worked much with at least some of this more technical terminology, but I have thought a bit about it, at least informally.

First, I don't buy the common assertion that this nation was founded by mostly conservative Christians, at least in the way we might talk about that now, and that modern society has somehow hijacked the nation and the constitution away from those values. I do agree with your point that the philosophical undergirding you refer to here in this post is antithetical, and at the very least, irrelevant to the Christian message.

At the same time I think we have to look at what may have motivated this philosophical notion to be enacted or formulated in the way it was with the founding of the United States, and I think the answer is pretty simple; dogmatic ideologies of all kinds have historically led to oppression. So here and now the idea is that dogmatic ideologies certainly exist, but our constitution is there to prevent them from becoming oppressive. The downside is that we have to live the practical consequences of the fact that not everyone agrees with or lives by our theological and moral commitments. The upside is that we still get to practice and live what we believe, without oppression.

Christians need to frst recognize that this is not our nation alone to claim on behalf of God, and, that the Christian message and the kingdom of God have nothing to do with claiming a safe-haven for the kingdom of God. Christianity exists in the world as a witness to the message of Christ, but as soon as we try to legislate adherence to those ideas, it becomes oppressive by definition.

Christians in America need to recognize that philosophical mistake or not, the church benefits from the notion you cite, even that it is also at once also contrary to the practical, moral, and theological mandate of our Lord to submit our personal lives to him.

Perhaps the better thing for Christians to consider, after they have come to grips with the fact that this is not, and perhaps should not be a nation under the formal mandates of Chrsitian ideology, is that the existence of the church and the living of one's personal life of faith is ultimately not dependent on the freedom the constitution extends, even though it happens to make practicing faith convenient.

Ian Clausen said...

Johnnie, Norm

Let me clarify, whether you two may suspect it of me or not, that I have no investment whatsoever in the claim that this nation was founded by conservative or even well-meaning Christians. That is irrelevant historical information. Indeed, one reading of my post could suggest I am against those Christians who think this the case. But it's of no import to me in the long run.

The ground I will not concede, however, is that a liberal polity - such as America is - makes for the least coercive form of government. So Johnnie says that we should be 'OK' with the fact that the Gospel contradicts the political assumptions of the nation. That is precisely what I reject. The Gospel is political or it is no Gospel. It says something directly to powers and principalities or the NT makes no sense to me. True, that Christians must do business with 'what the Constitution says' is the obvious and inescapable reality. But nothing here entails we have nothing to say against it. We lack the theo-political imagination if we think the only thing for us to do is to stay silent and keep our beliefs to ourselves, however much the nation is pleased to leave us alone.

On the flip side, it is a great question what kind of political involvement is ever not 'coercive' in some sense. That neither of you seem to take this problem up, my question is this: what makes the US Constitution less coercive as a philosophical document than, say, the British (unwritten) 'constitution' - which recognises and privileges an established Church? Indeed, perhaps you would find it remarkable that the top imams in Britain have explicitly said they want the Church privileged in this way, despite the incessant requests of the pluralists. Why is this? Perhaps because they believe the less role the Church has to play in the political equation, the less their concerns will be recognised as a distinct faith community. They are happy to go through the Bishops, much to the chagrin of 'neutral' pluralists. Do they see something we Americans don't? I think they do. That should teach us something.

Norm, to take on one of your comments, which Johnnie seems to agree with as well (though I am ready to be corrected). You write, in response to the reality of the US Constitution:

The downside is that we have to live the practical consequences of the fact that not everyone agrees with or lives by our theological and moral commitments. The upside is that we still get to practice and live what we believe, without oppression.

Let me put it this way: I think this is a great tragedy of a statement. I mean that with gravity. Nothing is more untrue to the Gospel than to raise our children with the belief that they do not have to suffer for their convictions (Hauerwas says that too). That American Christians have for so long enjoyed this 'lack of oppression' and now seek (implicitly or otherwise) to disseminate it worldwide, through a political message (America's) that is not true to the Gospel, shows us just how faithless we have become, just how inattentive to power.

I'll be the first to say, along with most American Christians, that I don't always know what to do about living and acting politically in America. But I know this: I do not and will not serve her, I am not interested in extending her hegemony far and wide. Moreover I think some of her key assumptions and axioms are killing us (i.e. the Church) softly, while making a travesty of the Gospel. Christians ought not to be political realists. We shouldn't run willy-nilly with institutions and philosophies, just because they happen to exist and have power. As Christians we should be more thoughtful and creative than that. Not optimists, not pessimists, just Christians, through and through.

(continued in next post)

Ian Clausen said...

Last word:

You seem so close, Norm, in your last statement, to coming round and just saying it: Christians in America are called to another life, a life that America does not make possible, in theory or in practice. Why can't we just say that. A lot more would begin to make sense. Though a lot more, I grant, would begin to get hard as well. But what did we expect?

Johnnie said...

Hi Norm,

When you say:

"So Johnnie says that we should be 'OK' with the fact that the Gospel contradicts the political assumptions of the nation. That is precisely what I reject. The Gospel is political or it is no Gospel. It says something directly to powers and principalities or the NT makes no sense to me. True, that Christians must do business with 'what the Constitution says' is the obvious and inescapable reality. But nothing here entails we have nothing to say against it. We lack the theo-political imagination if we think the only thing for us to do is to stay silent and keep our beliefs to ourselves..."

I think you misunderstand me. I do NOT mean to suggest that Christians must stay silent, etc, and ignore the politics of our gospel.

What I mean is that we must accept that the political playing field in the USA is completely level, or should be. When we want to get political, we must do so via the same methods as everyone else, and we must accept the consequences the same as everyone else.

For the most part I think this is done, just as I think Christians, really, have it better in the political arena than do Jews, Muslims, or atheists, for instance.

But too often I hear Christians argue against some legislation or policy--often those policies that protect the rights of minorities--by claiming that such policies run contra to what "should be" in a Christian nation, so on and so forth. A Christian community might pass a law, and the courts might strike it down, for such a reason, and that's what I mean Christians should "be ok" with. If they want to keep fighting, that's fine too, of course, so long as everyone understands that we're all working under the same Constitution, one that is not a Christian document.

Norman Jeune III said...

Ian and Johnnie.

First, Johnnie, you addessed me and quoted Ian. Not a big deal, but just to be clear.

In terms of what has been said here, I think Ian offers a bit of a corrective, and is even much clearer in teasing out some of the implications. That said, I really don't think we disagree.

What I am reacting to is the fact that Christians in this country want to claim it as 'God's country'- It is no such thing. I am also not giving complete endorsement to the constitution. I am merely saying that the consititution has come to be what it is with respect to this issue because history is rife with religious oppression, much of it from the Christian faith. In light of that, I am calling people to recognize that advancing the Christian message as inherent to a particular hegemonic power, of any sort, is simply wrong-headed. The kingdom of God has nothing to do with America and it pseudo-Christian ambitions. The church is simply guilty on this point.

Now, Ian is also right to offer the correction that we should perhaps not see our comfortable situation for practicing faith as a good thing. But that does not mean its not good; it simply means that in our depravity we cannot handle it, and the church gets watered down.

And I do think dealing with the assertion that the nation was somehow founded by conservative Christians is relevant to the extent that its a common argument offered in favor of the Christian perspective I reject. The faith of the founding fathers is used to justify the notion that this is or was Christian nation, and that it should be legislated that way now.

Ian, your very last comment is exactly what I was getting at. All I'm trying to say is that we have to realize why political and religious freedom is raised up like this in America. That does not make it our guiding principle, but I do think its a reminder that the kingdom of God is not attached to any national commitment because a true Christian witness is in no way threatened by pluralism as a value.

I am interested to hear your thoughts..

Ian Clausen said...

Thanks for the thoughts. Maybe the first thing I'm after is getting Christians (and I mean myself as well; I have no clue what to do) to fess up to the fact we're in a hard place in America. And I mean that, not in terms of American consumerism and worldliness - just symptoms, really, though important nonetheless - but the whole thing itself, the structures, axioms, everything that America what it is.

I really do think, Johnnie, Norm, that the concept of inalienable rights, for all the good it may do in the short run, just eats away at the soul in the long. I'd like to think the Gospel teaches me that. Maybe it teaches you that - I hope it does! But then I want to go further with it, maybe further than you two want to (though figuring that out over comments on a blog is just impossible). I want to say that the political message of the Gospel is such that we simply cannot accept, for prudential, pragmatic, or any other kinds of reasons, the political philosophy that underwrites the present Constitution. That demands among other things creativity in our public expressions and engagements. That means accepting the fact of our weakness in the political system. That means, too, that instead of believing in the government to (for example) protect minorities, we first need to foster the kinds of church communities that offer real-life possibilities to minorities who suffer under the government. For example check this out:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/13/nyregion/13indonesians.html?hp

In this instance it was the government that failed first. The Church is working with the government, yes, but it's also pushing against it - and it's doing so, not at the theoretical level, not coercively, but simply as the situation came to them. I guess that's something I'd like to see, and immigration (btw) is probably a great place to start. Since I believe inalienable rights, as a concept, as a very practical and very conceptually vacant notion, undermines community and relationships, and contradicts the Gospel message, I don't want to pursue its purposes through the government. That means friction, inevitably, as the article hints. We've got to business with what we've got, I agree. Doing business and capitulating are two separate things though. I would say wildly discontinuous things.

Do you follow?

Ian Clausen said...

Forgive the typos. It's late.

Norman Jeune III said...

I think we need to talk on the phone Ian. I have so much I want to say with respect to this issue, and I feel like a phone conversation would be much more productive and expedient to talk about it.

I started typing another response, but I just think its going to take too long for all the thoughts to get out on the table.

Fred said...

My thoughts are this.Our rights are based in the idea that we are individually responsible before God and Man and that to be responsible we must have the freedom to exercise that responsibility. While some of our Founders may have had their own conceptions what all this meant, never the less they reasoned together and came to one accord--many seeking God's favor in this, which I believe He granted, in His Providence.But the favor was conditional as at its deepest level the Founding was a coveneant with God on our part. "under God"

I sense today a deep resentement or a move to discredit God's work in this nation in the past, though we assume we can see Him acting now, This negative movement may come out of the general anti_Christian, anti-WASP attitude of our society in general. I believe the mores of our society have "inbred" some of this "disdain" into even the best well-intentive Christian, through general education, political spirits and media.

Our Founders were men, fallible, and of various persuasions. But I truly believe God granted, for the sake of the Elect,to become of one accord so to form the greatest nation that ever existed. That does not mean we have stayed that way--even for long after the Founding Law was put in place. But there I place the blame on the church for I believe the American church played the whore as did Europe, just the American church did it at a slower speed. If America is being judged today, remember that judgement begins with the household of God.

thesgc said...

I can't say I have very solid views on all this, but I'm still not quite understanding what you find inherently offensive about the idea of inalienable rights. Certainly we can all agree that the utterly self-obsessed fixation on "my rights" is a disease of the American mind. And certainly there's no such thing as an inalienable right to look at pornography or some such rubbish. But what is wrong with the idea that people have a right to life, liberty, property, etc., that may not be violated by another human being without just cause? That the biblical focus is on me voluntarily giving up my rights does not contradict the idea that others may not forcibly violate them.

Norman Jeune III said...

I think thesgc's comment hit on, perhaps a bit more clearly, at least one fo the points I was trying to make when thesgc says,

Certainly we can all agree that the utterly self-obsessed fixation on "my rights" is a disease of the American mind. And certainly there's no such thing as an inalienable right to look at pornography or some such rubbish. But what is wrong with the idea that people have a right to life, liberty, property, etc., that may not be violated by another human being without just cause? That the biblical focus is on me voluntarily giving up my rights does not contradict the idea that others may not forcibly violate them.


Perhaps another way to distinguish it, using phrasing just off the top of my head, would be say to say that its the difference between unconditional submission to God (which the gospel entails), and protections that prevent one person from oppressing another. For a person to employ unalienable rights as the end all justification for self indulgence and aggrandizement is simply an inapporiate distortion.

Hopefully this helps; maybe it still misses your point Ian.

Fred said...

I side with the last two posters. I think that God's common grace is just as real as His special grace. I believe the idea of "inalienable rights" is the idea of common grace given and established by God--that same grace that is present when He allows the rain to fall on the just and unjust alike--that same grace, that if not for it, we would tear each other limb to limb continuously without restraint. That grace is inherent to all men for we all live with a God of love. This love is for all men as far as common grace goes, but for the believers, as it is said in Jeremiah to those ordained with special grace--, You have I loved with an everlasting love. That love is forever---common grace is for this life alone.

Ian Clausen said...

All posts following my last post raise good questions. I'm willing to grant my original comments demand some clarification, even emendation. No one here doubts that inalienable rights are what we as Christians in America have to work with. I'm not sure they have the blessing of 'common grace' so much as some comments seem to suppose. But neither ought we to dismiss them entirely on my wildly outrageous reference to the 'right to pornography' (which is really just the right to privacy, and in that sense, certainly of a piece with the notion of rights).

I'll have to come back on this point in the near future. One comment I do wish to make, however, is this: Fred refers to general resentment among some Americans (?) for what God has done in America's past. I don't doubt God's providence on this point, in fact, I don't think anything in my post suggested God was not at work at that time. But 'God at work' does not license the following deduction: 'therefore what happened was right'. I can disagree with and still operate within the axioms that make America what it is. That does not make me resentful. It makes me, in the most positive light, thoughtful and critical (which perhaps I failed to be.) At the very least, it forces me to be attentive to what is. Is criticism always resentful?