In Us We Trust

Max Greenwald | 20 May 2020

At a "Reopen Massachusetts" protest recently I saw a bumper sticker that read:

God gives rights, not Govt

The protesters were demonstrating for their individual rights to move about and do business as usual during the current public health crisis. However, in the context of a protest for individual rights, this specific bumper sticker struck me as hypocritical. By demanding liberties while also espousing slogans prescribing a particular theology on others, these protesters alienated nearly 20% of the US population: those of us who are not religious.

The phrase "God gives rights" implies that "God gives all of us rights". Here, "rights" means "human rights" or "natural rights" as detailed by the UN. Although the UN lists some of these rights, including the freedom of religion and the right to peaceful assembly, it does not stipulate the source or origin of these rights. This omission is understandable. The answer to this question is not straightforward.

To try to answer this question, we can look to documents such as the Declaration of Independence that justify founding a government based on the rights of the people. On this question of the source of our rights, the Declaration famously says:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men people 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.

There's a lot to unpack here. Besides the fact that only men were thought to have rights in 1776, the above statement has held up well over the last three centuries: people have undeniable human rights. However, the key word here is "their": "their Creator". Thomas Jefferson and the other founders believed that our human rights come from our individual creators, the creators that we ourselves believe in, if applicable. For some of us, that creator is God. For others, myself included, that creator is not God. I personally believe that I am the product of science and evolution.

Back to the original slogan: God gives rights, not Govt. Because we do not all get our rights from God, the slogan is wrong. By implying that God gives all of us rights, these protesters insinuated that everyone should believe in God. Yet, the protesters themselves were demonstrating in order to retain their own freedoms that our government temporarily took away due to COVID-19. This is hypocritical. In a society that prides itself on freedom of religion, we must not combine liberation with proselytization. If God gives all of us rights, does someone who doesn't believe in God not have rights?

Now that we've demonstrated that God is not the single source of rights, let's ask a different question: do governments give rights? This is a strange question because on the surface it seems like governments do give rights. However, this isn't the entire story. To answer this question, we can look at the very next sentence of the Declaration of Independence:

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men People, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government

Stated a different way: governments do not give rights; they (are intended to) secure them. To secure rights, governments can enact legislation to protect rights and hold violators responsible. However, governments do not have the right (ha) to create rights out of thin air, nor can they simply take rights away. That power belongs to us, the people.

I think of the relationship between the people and the government like the relationship between a manager and her subordinate. Once the manager (the people) hires the worker (the government), she is free at any time to renegotiate the employment contract or fire the worker if he is not doing his job (securing the rights of the people).

This is awesome! We have the responsibility to change or remove our government if it does not protect our rights. As such, I completely agree with the second half of the original slogan: our rights do not come from the government! On the contrary, governments secure our rights.

However, our rights also do not come from God. God has no place in our eternal contract negation with our government as to when and how much it will work to secure our rights. In this negotiation, it matters most that we all agree to stand up against any government that would exert its power to infringe upon our innate rights.

A better slogan

In the spirit of the original message, I propose one simple modification for a better slogan, one that I hope we can all identify with:

We give rights, not Govt