A desire to be free exists deep within the human soul. Children start expressing this around age two as they start saying “no” to parental instructions. Teenagers express it when they rebel against family rules. Couples express it when they fight about their partner’s demands for behavioral change. It expresses itself in the political landscape as individuals and party affiliates fiercely disagree about social issues.
Our desire to be free is counterbalanced by our social nature. Children may say “no” but they also want parents love and attention. Teenagers seek more freedom but still want family help and support. Partners in a marriage want to make their own decisions, but also want their partner’s love and approval. The tension between these two desires means there are two forces at work forming society. One is the desire for freedom and the other is the desire to belong.
As Americans, ideas like “do your own thing” and “have it your way” are embedded in our national consciousness, but most of us would never take this to the extremes that Satanist Aleister Crowley dis when he wrote, “Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” If the only law was, “do whatever you want,” then nobody is safe or secure. None of us want to be murdered, have our property stolen or vandalized or to be enslaved by another stronger person who claims he is just be exercising his freedom to “do his own thing.”
That’s why true liberty is founded in morality. There has to be a limit to freedom. There has to be a place where our ability to have our own way ends so that others around us can be free, too.
The American Idea of Freedom
The ideal of freedom that ignited the American Revolution and the constitutional republic that grew out of it was one that was rooted in the value and dignity of the individual. It was Thomas Jefferson who eloquently penned this idea into 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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…"
I believe these words were inspired by God, because in spite of the fact that the signers were claiming these truths were “self-evident,” they were actually a radical change in the thought processes that had governed people for centuries. They were so radical, in fact, that the Founding Fathers were not able to fully implement them.
Many of them recognized that slavery was incompatible with this idea, but it would take a future generation to free the slaves Many more generations would be required to start dismantling laws that supported discrimination. Native Americans weren’t treated as equals in American society and neither were women in many ways. Nevertheless, these words laid forth an ideal towards which America has been striving, and towards which progress has been made. However, even if we’ve never fully implemented this idea, it still lays forth the basis for freedom, and that basis is the unalienable rights God granted to each person.
What Unalienable Means
The word unalienable means that you cannot be made an alien to your something—in other words, it cannot be separated from you. It means that you possess rights by the very fact you are alive.
These rights were not given to you by man either. They were given to you by the Creator, by God himself. The idea that rights come from God has largely been forsaken in modern American discourse for two reasons. First, because there is a growing trend towards atheism and secondly, because we tend to talk about Constitutional, rather than unalienable rights.
Unfortunately, referring to our rights as Constitutional gives the idea that the government gives us these rights. That suggests that our rights come from other men.. But, if the rights are granted by men, then men also have the power to take them away. That is also true if there is no God, as there is no ultimate moral authority if there is no God. If rights are granted by man and not God, they are merely ideas one group may believe in and another may reject because it interferes with “doing your own thing.”
What people need to understand is that human rights are not political issues. They are moral issues. Believing your rights are God-given and unalienable is essential to a free society for two reasons. First, if those in political power believe there is an authority higher than themselves who will hold them morally accountable if they trespass on other’s rights, it will restrain their actions. More importantly, if the people believe that these rights are given them by God, and not by some mortal authority, they will defend their rights and seek to prevent other people, including those acting on behalf of the government from taking them away.
This is important because unalienable doesn't mean that other people are automatically going to respect your rights. No rational person could believe that because other people can and do violate your rights. What it does mean is that no one (including those who are in authority in government) has the moral right to deprive you of them. If they trespass against your rights, they are morally in the wrong, and since they are morally in the wrong, you morally have the right to resist their efforts. In fact, it means that you have the moral right (and perhaps even the moral obligation) to use violence, if necessary, to protect yourself or others against said violation.
Our Primary Unalienable Rights
The Declaration of Independence lists our basic rights when it declares that among our rights are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I emphasize the word among to indicate that the list given here was never meant to be exhaustive. However, I would also suggest that all our other rights are extensions of these basic rights. Let me elaborate on each of these three basic rights and their moral foundations.
The Right to Life
Mankind cannot create life. We can’t even create a single living cell. Therefore, life is something that we cannot give, which also suggests it is something we should have reverence towards.
The idea that human life is sacred is rooted in the Biblical idea that God created human beings, male and female, in His own image. God breathed the breath of life into mankind and made us living souls. He also commanded “Thou shalt not murder.”
We all have an instinctive, God-given desire to preserve their own life. In fact, most of us would consider murder as the most serious of all criminal acts because our desire to live is unalienable to our soul. Even those seeking to take the lives of others will act to preserve their own life at the same time. A person has to be extremely traumatized, deeply psychologically wounded and/or mentally ill to lose the desire to live, illustrating the inalienable nature of the right to life.
There are extensions to this unalienable right. Someone doesn’t have to kill me to diminish my life. Anything with damages my body is a trespass against my life, which is why we also consider assault to be a crime. If someone knocks out my teeth, pokes out my eye, tortures me or poisons me and destroys my health, we also see that as a trespass against life.
The right to life is the most basic and overarching of all rights. Without it, the other two basic rights can’t be exercised. No one can enjoy liberty or pursue their happiness after they are murdered, and their ability to exercise liberty and pursue their desires is diminished when they are injured.
The Right to Liberty
The Biblical story also indicates that God gave mankind free will, granting them the power to choose to defy Him if they so desired. Free will would not be possible if we had no ability to choose between right and wrong. Free will was a dangerous gift because choosing evil means that mankind has the capacity to cause a great deal of pain and suffering in this world. But, God still offered this gift to mankind.
The idea of free will isn’t just our capacity to choose between good and evil, however. In its most fundamental nature, it is the capacity to create. When God, the Creator, formed man in His image, he granted him the capacity to create, and to me, that is what liberty is really all about.
Liberty gives us the freedom to choose what, how and when we will create. It allows us to express the life God has granted us. We are able to pour the energy of our life into whatever constructive (good) or destructive (evil) activities we desire.
The creative capacity of human beings is something you do not see in the animal kingdom. Animals create things of course. Spiders make webs, birds make nests, and gophers dig tunnels. But these creative acts are distinctive to each animal. Spiders don’t make nests, gophers don’t spin webs and birds don’t dig tunnels. As human beings, we can do any of these things. It is our creativity and self-consciousness (the ability to reflect on ourselves) that make us unique among the other forms of life around us.
When society respects people’s liberty, it is amazing what human beings are capable of discovering, inventing, building, transforming and otherwise creating. Think of all the amazing benefits we enjoy in a free society because of the creative efforts others make in art, science, industry and business.
God grants us the ability to become co-creators with Him in forming the conditions of this world. Other than restricting our freedom by forbidding us to trespass on the rights of others, God wants us to be free and this idea is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian ideas that shaped the Founder’s thinking. In his discussion of the ten commandments, Dennis Prager, the Jewish founder of Prager U, points out how the first of the ten commandments demonstrates God’s desire for mankind’s freedom. It begins, “I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of bondage...”
Mr. Prager notes that God could have said, “I’m the Lord, your God, who created the Universe…” but God chooses to emphasize His role in setting them free. It suggests that God is opposed to slavery. In fact, the story of Moses leading the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt was an inspiring ideal in the American revolution. So much so that Benjamin Franklin suggested an image of Moses parting the Red Sea for the national seal.
Most of our so-called “constitutional rights” are merely extensions of our right to liberty. We can believe or disbelieve what we want. We can write or say what we want. We can travel where we want. We can protect our own lives and property against criminals by being armed. We can choose those with whom we will associate and form voluntary and mutually beneficial agreements with them.
The Pursuit of Happiness
The philosophers of the enlightenment that brought about the American concept of government, such as John Locke, spoke of our three basic rights as “life, liberty and property.” Thomas Jefferson used the term, “the pursuit of happiness” in place of property. Apparently, he wanted to convey that there is more to life than just acquiring property, a concept to which today’s consumer-driven society needs to awaken.
However, property is one important aspect of the pursuit of happiness. That’s because property is essential to preserving both life and liberty. We require food, clothing, and shelter in order to sustain our lives. We may also require other types of property to exercise our creative liberty and achieve our individual goals. Builders need tools, musicians need instruments, farmers need seeds and farm implements, and photographers need cameras.
Thus, property is also an extension of the rights of life and liberty. As I exercise the creative power of liberty, I create things. Because I have put part of myself (my life energy, time, and liberty) into my creations, they are mine.
Ownership is the final right of control. That which I own I am free to use or dispose of as I see fit. This means I can use my property for my own purposes, not someone else's purposes. I can sell or trade it for something else I want, give it away, or even throw it away. If I own something, no one else has the right to determine what I do with it.
Possessions are not necessarily property. If a man snatches a woman’s purse on the street, the purse is not his property. If I acquire something through theft, deceit or fraud, then what I am in possession of is not my property, either. I have no moral right to the property of another, as expressed in the commandments, “Thou shalt not steal,” and “Thou shalt not covet.”
But there is a further distinction we need to make between possession and property, one our society often fails to make. I did not create the natural resources found on this earth. I did not create the air, water, land, plants, or animals. I can take possession of these resources, but it is my added labor that makes them mine.
It is fundamentally immoral therefore to deprive other human beings access to the resources God created to sustain human life. For instance, we should not be locking up unused land and labeling it private property. It’s a fundamental fact that every person needs land to occupy in order to live. It is fundamentally immoral for a society to tie up vast tracts of unused land and resources while others are homeless and hungry. To deny others land to live on, air to breathe, water to drink and access to the other resources needed to create the food, clothing, and shelter they need to survive is a violation of other people’s right to life.
These resources were created by God to provide for His children. To elaborate on this idea, I’ll discuss aspects of the Old Testament law that address these issues. For now, it’s sufficient to make it clear that barring people from access to the resources that would enable them to care for themselves is immoral and is not included in the unalienable right of property.
Beyond the Right of Property
The above discussion of how the pursuit of possessions or property can be used to justify harm to others is why the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” is an important ideal. Jefferson appears to have based this phrase on the idea of happiness expressed in ancient Greek and Roman texts, where happiness is linked to morality and virtue.
Aristotle argued that happiness was not equivalent to wealth, honor or pleasure. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he wrote, “the happy man lives well and does well; for we have practically defined happiness as a sort of good life and good action.” Jefferson admired the Roman philosopher Epicuris and summarized his ideas in a letter to a friend, stating that happiness is the aim of life, but that virtue was the foundation of happiness. He also stated that utility (the benefits our lives produced for our fellow man) was the test of virtue.
Clearly, Americans have lost sight of what it really means to pursue happiness. Genuine happiness is not found in the things most people are chasing, such as wealth, fame, and power. It is found in morality, virtue, and goodness. Therefore, our unalienable right is not to pursue all the material wealth we can, and especially not at the expense of others. Rather, it is our right to pursue the highest good, to allow our soul to achieve that which is just, right and true.
Rights are Not Privileges
In today’s world, people use the word rights very loosely. Mostly, they use it in reference to “group rights.” They speak of gay rights, black rights, female rights and so forth. Group rights are not unalienable rights. Anything which other people have to grant you is not inalienable. What people grant are privileges, not rights.
By definition, the unalienable rights we have just discussed must be both individual and universal at the same time. They are inherently part of each individual person, and they are also universally part of every individual person. Your unalienable rights either belong to everyone or they belong to no one. They don’t belong to us because we are part of a specific race, gender, religion, or nationality.
From a spiritual perspective, if our unalienable rights were only available to us because we are of the "right" race, sex, religion or nationality, then God would be a respecter of persons. Unlike human beings, God is "no respecter of persons," so what he grants to each of us, he grants to all of us.
I firmly believe that God wants every person on this earth to enjoy the rights He gave them. I also believe that he will hold us accountable in the hereafter for our trespasses against the rights of others if we do not repent of those trespasses. Although the Founding Fathers had many different religious beliefs, they recognized that a belief that God would hold men accountable for how they treated each other was an essential moral foundation for America. To the extent that we have lost that belief our rights are under attack because crime and lawlessness will increase when people do not believe they will ultimately be held accountable by a just God.
Click here to read Chapter Four: Crime is Trespass
Click here to read Chapter Two: Liberty is In Danger