The debate that I am partaking in over at Claremont regarding the “under God” in the pledge controversy has raised the issue of rights and God. Religious conservatives have attempted to get mileage out of the notion that the Declaration of Independence states that our “Creator” grants us inalienable rights makes the Declaration and our whole system of rights grounded in Christian theology. Allan Bloom, one of the most well respected conservative political philosophers, in The Closing of the American Mind, teaches differently. (Alan Keyes, who ought to know better because he studied under Bloom and counts him as his most important philosophical mentor, has stated that the Declaration’s invocation of a “Creator” makes it “a bridge between the Bible and the Constitution.”) The Bible nowhere speaks of unalienable political or civil rights; this doctrine has a wholly non-Christian origin. “Rights teachings” were first posited by philosophers who, for the most part, denied the (orthodox) Christian God, and did so to break with the traditional Christian understanding of nature. “Hobbes initiated the notion of rights, and it was given its greatest respectability by Locke." Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, p. 165.
The "God" that grants us rights is "Nature's God," who, according to the philosophers, was not the God of the Bible, but a Deistic God. Nature's God is as close to a secular version of God as you can get. That's why, if the pledge refers to this secular version of God, the "under God," in there is defensible as ceremonial Deism.
Moreover, the knowledge that we have these rights comes from Man’s Reason, wholly unaided by Biblical Revelation.
From his reflection on the state of nature, Locke drew his formula of Enlightenment, with its particular combination of natural and political science. Its starting point is the untrammeled use of reason...Through unaided reason, man as man, as opposed to the man of this place or time, nation or religion, can know the cause of things, can know nature for himself.
Id, at 163-4.
[Enlightenment] provides the structure for the key term of liberal democracy, the most successful and useful political notion of our world: rights. Government exists to protect the product of men's labor, their property, and therewith life and liberty. The notion that man possesses inalienable natural rights, that they belong to him as an individual prior, both in time and in sanctity, to any civil society, and that civil societies exist for and acquire their legitimacy from ensuring those rights, is an invention of modern philosophy (my italics). Rights...are new in modernity, not a part of the common-sense language of politics or of classical political philosophy.
Id, at p. 165.
This bears repeating: Rights are an invention (or a “discovery” if you will) of modern political philosophy. They are not derived from the Bible or Christianity (at least in a positive sense—as I will show later, Christianity did negatively influence the notion of rights; that is, “rights” were initiated as a reaction to the practices of orthodox Christianity, to weaken the power that religion had over society).
In order to found our regime, Reason had to assert her authority over Revelation.
It had to be, for, in order to have rulers who are reasonable, many of the old rulers had to be replaced, in particular all those whose authority rested upon revelation. The priests were the enemies, for they rejected the claim of reason and based politics and morals on sacred text and ecclesiastical authorities. The philosophers appeared to deny the very existence of God, or at least of the Christian God (my italics). The old order was founded on Christianity, and free use of reason simply could not be permitted within it, since reason accepts no authority above itself and is necessarily subversive... Id, at pp. 257-8.
Still, someone over at Claremont has attempted to put forth some scripture asserting that the Bible is the source of “rights”: "Where the spirit of the lord is there is liberty." - 2Cor 3:17. And in what context was liberty being referred to here? As an unalienable political or civil right? I don’t think so. There is no connection between this Bible passage and the notion of unalienable rights as understood by the initiators of modern politics, Hobbes, Locke, et al.
Once a political theory is formulated, it's always possible to go back and look for things in the Bible to support it. We could do the same thing with Marxism—all of those statements by Jesus condemning the rich, demanding that all one's money be given away to the poor, the communitarian lifestyle that Jesus led, etc. Indeed liberation theology has made a nice admixture of Jesus' and Marx's teachings. So Jesus is the source of Marxism?
If anything, rights teachings emerged as a reaction to the then understanding of orthodox Christianity posited by entities like the Catholic Church and the poster boy of Protestant orthodox Christianity, John Calvin. Let me once again cite what Walter Berns has written regarding Calvin: “For Calvin, liberty of conscience meant just that, and no more than that. If someone gave voice to his conscience, thus being heard or read by others, he might rightly be punished. So it was that, as the effective governor of his city of Geneva, Calvin had one of his anti-Trinitarian critics put to death.” Berns, Making Patriots, p. 42.
Keep in mind that Calvin understood the Bible as well as anyone else.
Christianity may very well be compatible with "rights" teachings in a way that other religions, say Islam, are not. Jesus did effect a separation of things spiritual & temporal and also stated things that would lead us to believe that secular government & Christianity are compatible: "Render unto Caesar..." and when they tried to make him a king, "My Kingdom is not of this Earth…" (But that's it; that's as far as Jesus goes. Separation of Church & State and inalienable rights didn't come until some one thousand seven hundred years later.) Islam does not teach the same. Muhammad was not only leader of Islam but also head of state. Therefore putting Islam through an Enlightenment may be more of a challenge than it was with Christianity.
And the U.S.—a nation comprised of many orthodox Christians—did come to accept and implement non-Christian Enlightenment Dogma. Many such Christians wholly accepted the “Truth” of the Enlightenment and didn’t see it as conflicting with the tenants of Christianity. For instance, John Witherspoon, a founder, a professor and president of Princeton University (then the college of New Jersey), was also a Presbyterian minister and is often referred to as a “Calvinist.” Witherspoon, during his sermons would synthesize Lockean political theory with orthodox Christianity. As Walter Berns notes,
Witherspoon could speak unreservedly of "natural liberty" and "natural rights"; and of the "state of nature" and like Locke…of its "inconveniences," inconveniences that caused men to leave it for the "social state." But in the same lecture he could admonish his listeners and readers to accept "Christ Jesus as he is offered in the gospel," for "except that a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." In a word, Witherspoon saw no conflict between the new political philosophy and the old religion, which is to say between the principles set down in the Declaration of Independence and what he understood as orthodox Christianity. Id, at p. 42.
Here is how Allan Bloom puts this into perspective: "When bishops, a generation after Hobbes's death, almost naturally spoke the language of the state of nature, contract and rights, it was clear that he defeated the ecclesiastical authorities, who were no longer able to understand themselves as they once had." The Closing of the American Mind, pp. 141-2.
Thus, the big question that is begged is whether “rights teachings” truly are compatible with the demands that orthodox Christianity makes of individuals or of society. Biblical Christianity certainly doesn’t demand the implementation of these politics. Moreover, Enlightenment principles flat out conflict with an understanding of Christianity that seeks to remake the nation, via the organs of the state, into an ideal Christian society.
And the Enlightenment greatly (and rightly in my mind) weakened the power that religion had over society:
Hobbes & Locke, and the American Founders following them, intended to palliate extreme beliefs, particularly religious beliefs...In order to make this arrangement work, there was a conscious, if covert effort to weaken religious belief, partly by assigning—as a result of a great epistemological effort—religion to the realm of opinion as opposed to knowledge. But the right to freedom of religion belonged to the realm of knowledge. Id, at p. 28.
For evidence of Bloom's last passage that I cited one need only look to the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom and see how religion, i.e. religious beliefs, are almost always referred to as "opinion."
Finally, Bloom believed that the Enlightenment project that Hobbes & Locke initiated was done to break with the traditional Christian understanding of nature, via Aquinas. Here is Bloom on their “state of nature discoveries”:
Man was not provided for at the beginning, and his current state is not a result of his sin, but of nature's miserliness. He is own his own. GOD NEITHER LOOKS OUT FOR HIM NOR PUNISHES HIM (my emphasis). Nature's indifference to justice is a terrible bereavement for man. He must care for himself without the hope that good men have always had: that there is a price to be paid for crime, that the wicked will suffer. But it is also a great liberation—from God's tutelage, from the claims of kings, nobles, and priests, and from guilt or bad conscience. The greatest hopes are dashed, but some of the worst terrors and inner enslavements are dispelled. Id, at p. 163.
I tend to agree with Bloom that the understanding of nature posited by Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson & Madison, et al. did indeed break with the Christian understanding of nature. And a profound break it was indeed!