Where rights come from
“the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”
– John F. Kennedy,
January 20, 1961
It isn’t often that a member of the media reveals the philosophy behind his political ideology, but last week, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo outed himself. In an exchange with Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore about Moore’s refusal to adhere to a federal appellate judge’s order to ignore the state constitution and begin granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Moore said “our rights contained in the Bill of Rights do not come from the Constitution, they come from God.”
Cuomo disagreed: “Our laws do not come from God, your honor, and you know that. They come from man.”
Obviously, Cuomo flunked civics. Does he really believe that man is responsible for bestowing rights, and can therefore take those rights away as he sees fit? That a right bestowed today by a governing body of mere mortals can be invalidated by another body, say, following an election? That my rights and yours are as fluid as quicksilver and dependent on who sits in the big chair in Washington?
It is not a new debate, but a debate worth renewing.
The framers of the Constitution clearly understood that in order to put certain rights out of the reach of government, whose power they wished to limit, those rights had to come from a place government could not reach.
Thomas Jefferson understood this well enough to write in the Declaration of Independence that our rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are “endowed by our Creator.” He added in the next sentence that the purpose of government is to “secure these rights.”
When government believes it can create or take away rights, it becomes a god unto itself and potentially endangers those rights. The only way to preserve them for ourselves and our posterity is to acknowledge they come from a higher place.
The English jurist, William Blackstone, who once studied in American law schools, understood this. Blackstone was a contemporary of America’s Founders, who referred to him more than any other English or American authority. It wasn’t until the middle of the last century that the Supreme Court began repudiating Blackstone and started making law and creating rights.
As noted on the website Blackstone Legal Fellowship, “Blackstone called this concept (of endowed rights) ‘ultra vires,’ which means it is beyond the authority of man to write a law that violates God’s law. Blackstone also said that law is fixed, it is uniform, and it is universal. It does not change based on who the president is, or who holds judicial positions. It is the same law for everyone at all times and in all places.”
The distinction between manmade law and laws that emanate from God is critical. Did civil rights legislation grant rights to African-Americans, or did they already possess those rights and government merely got around to recognizing them? Is not the Authority Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. frequently appealed to higher than any court or Congress?
If those rights were granted by government, the day might come when the cultural winds and public opinion shift and they could be taken away by the same institution that granted them. If they were endowed, then government has no right to create or remove them.
Man enacted laws sanctioning same-sex marriage. Judge Roy Moore argues that a Higher law, including for human relationships, should prevail, a Higher law that man cannot impeach. I believe he’s right.
Secular progressives believe in a “living Constitution” that constantly “evolves” to serve the people. The Founders (and Blackstone) believed the people are best served when they conform to laws established by God.
One doesn’t have to believe in God for this to work, but the alternative potentially puts the rights of everyone in peril should one group, or class, fall out of favor.
This is why Chris Cuomo is wrong about the source of our laws and Judge Moore is right.
(Cal Thomas’ latest book is “What Works: Common Sense Solutions for a Stronger America” is available in bookstores now. Readers may email Cal Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org.)