God, Human Rights, and the Declaration of Independence


A special guest post from What’s Wrong? Advisory Board member Christopher Kaczor (Loyola Marymount)

God, Human Rights, and 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.” Does God do any real work in the Declaration of Independence or would everything claimed in the Declaration remain unaltered if the atheistic worldview is correct?

The natural rights proclaimed in 1776 impose a moral obligation upon other agents minimally not to intentionally murder us or enslave us. These natural rights may or may not also have corresponding legal rights enforced by law. However, if a Supreme Judge of the world exists, then God not only sees human activity but responds with justice to it. If such a God does exists, the murderer, the slave trader, and the thief, will not ultimately evade punishment. Whoever violates human dignity cannot escape Justice. If a Supreme Judge exists, wrongdoers are ultimately always caught and always punished.

Thus, if an agent believes in God, that agent has an additional motivation to avoid wrongdoing, in as much as the agent believes that wrongdoing is always punished. Such considerations obviously did not prevent theistic believers from heinous wrongdoing such as the Inquisition, witch burning, Wars of Religion, and anti-Semitic pogroms, among many other atrocities. But of course the atheism of its agents did not stop the Reign of Terror, the Gulags of Stalin, the Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot, or the Great Leap Forward through 45 million corpses of Mao. Human beings do evil, sometimes massive evil, whether they are atheists, theists, or agnostics. However, theistic belief introduces a new consideration of deterrence to wrongdoing that an atheist lacks, namely that violations of natural rights are constantly detected, infallibly judged, and perfectly punished in this life or the next. From the perspective of someone who believes in God, human choice has eternal and cosmic significance because the effects of these choices can endure forever, even after death. This provides an additional motive for ethical behavior that an atheist is missing. Perhaps for this reason, Jefferson remarked, “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?” It is noteworthy he says, “in the minds of the people,” implicitly suggesting that perhaps in other minds basic liberties might be secured by other means than the invocation of God’s justice.

In addition, as Harry Jaffa pointed out, the invocation of God also serves as an implicit reminder of what a human person is not. No human individual can create himself or the conditions first making possible individual or collective human existence (air, water, gravity, atmospheric pressure). We can refashion created things, but we do not create ex nihilo. We do not share in Divine nature, but we also do not share in the nature of an irrational animal. In Jefferson’s words, “Man [is] a rational animal, endowed by nature with rights and with an innate sense of justice.” We have powers of reflection that enable political deliberation, orchestral composition, and philosophical refutation that (as far as we know) other animals do not enjoy. But this recognition leads to further insight into our basic moral status vis-à-vis one another. As Jaffa writes, “In short, as men are neither beasts nor gods, they out not to play God to other men, nor ought they to treat other men as beasts. Here is the elementary ground, not only of political but of moral obligation.” Someone who places himself in absolute power over other human beings usurps God’s place and implicitly denies his own humanity. No one may justly consider herself a God in relation to other human beings, and when this happens the greatest tyranny can result.

For this reason, the consent of the governed is relevant for just government, “Consent becomes necessary to the just powers of government because men are equal,” writes Jaffa. “that is because men are not unequal, as are man and God, or man and beast, nature by itself does not decide the question of who is to rule. Consent comes to light in the Declaration as an alternative to nature, as a source of the just powers of government.” It is important to note that the scope of consent is narrower than the extension of inalienable rights. Not all human beings are capable of giving informed consent. So although young children have the same inalienable rights as adults not to be intentionally killed or enslaved, young children are rightly denied the right to vote, since they cannot give legal and (when they are very young) moral consent to anything.

The contrast between human nature and divine nature is significant. The Divine appears not just in the most famous section of the Declaration quoted above, but also in the first sentence, last paragraph, and concluding sentence of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration’s opening sentence invokes God as Legislator, “When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” The Declaration concludes with invoking God as judge, “We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions.…” The final sentence of the Declaration invokes God as Executive, providentially ordering and overseeing human affairs, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” The framers invoke the legislative, judicial, and executive power of the Divinity.

Only in a God could perfect justice, wisdom, power, and goodness exist. Since we do not share the Divine Nature, we lack moral perfection. Jaffa draws out the political implications of this insight, “It is an absolutely necessary condition of the rule of law that there three powers of government never be united in the same human hands. For them to be so united, whether in a singular or a collective body, is the very definition of tyranny, as the Founding Fathers never ceased to repeat. For the equality of mankind is an equality of defect, as well as an equality of rights….” A perfect tyranny would be absolute power without absolute wisdom, justice, and love. Since no human being has absolute wisdom, justice and love, no human being rightfully exercises absolute power over any other.


2 responses to “God, Human Rights, and the Declaration of Independence

  1. It is not entirely clear, but Professor Kaczor apparently thinks that the “theological hypothesis” regarding political and (therefore) moral norms is actually plausible. It is not, as was shown by Plato long ago.

    Why not? For a disarmingly simple reason: how do we know that “God’s” rules are the right ones? Well, how did God know they were the right ones? He must have known this, since if he didn’t, they are apparently arbitrary. And does anyone think that they could be arbitrary?

    Since God can only have “legislated” morality on the basis of its antecedent rightness, obviously the hypothesis of the existence of a God adds nothing whatever to morals. We and God are in the same boat: looking out at mankind (in God’s case, presumably his creation – but so what?), and figuring out how they would do best in living together, given the way they are. If God is supposed to have done a perfect job of this, that is only by definition. But what is the content of the definition in question? That question, alas, cannot be answered by asking God.
    As I put it in my classes for forty years: theology in morals is a fifth wheel. It adds nothing, but it can cause plenty of heat and ferocity.


  2. God does do work in the Declaration, as God does in the large majority of 18th century moral philosophies. True rights theories were very rare and often received with disbelief and incomprehension (see, for instance, the long history of responses to Hobbes). Typically in this period natural rights are justified by the natural law duties that they were the means to fulfilling–e.g. we have a duty to preserve ourselves and, therefore, a right to defend ourselves from attack. Those duties are obligatory because they are imposed, in some sense or other, by God. In addition, there are also the psychological and explanatory roles for God in morality, some of which are mentioned in this blog post.

    And while Prof. Narveson may ultimately be right on the merits, it was not so obvious to centuries of philosophers. In particular, many claimed that while we could know that certain acts were good, they did not become obligatory without the exercise of God’s will. Voluntarists of various stripes weren’t unaware of the arguments mentioned above–they just didn’t think those arguments made sufficient sense of the obligatory nature of morality.


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