Sep 17

The Politics of God: A Problem of Rights

Have you ever heard someone say that you need God in government to maintain your rights? They will typically say something like, “Rights are granted by God and can only be revoked by God. That’s the only way we can keep the State from unjustly harming us.” Rights in this context generally refers to only the most fundamental rights, like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (Lockeans would include property). Well, if that view is your basis for rights, then you run into some interesting problems. I made this point on Facebook a while ago, but after watching a few Republican Presidential debates, I wanted to expand on the idea and relate it directly to stances taken by Republican candidates.


My argument is quite simple – I would formulate it as follows, taking the above position to its logical conclusion:


1. God is the divine author of rights.

2. Only the divine author of rights can justly revoke those rights.

3. Therefore, the State cannot justly revoke our fundamental rights.


Now, so far, religious people probably think this all sounds pretty good. “Yes,” they say, “the government has no right to interfere with my God-given liberties! The government should just be in place to protect them.” But let’s keep following the argument and see where it will run into some problems.


4. These fundamental rights include a right to life.

5. Therefore, the State has no right to revoke my life and has an obligation to protect my life.

6. Therefore, the State has no right to kill me (Capital Punishment) or to let me die through conscious inaction.


Rick Perry proudly boasted about his record as Governor (Head Executioner) of Texas. The crowd at the debate apparently liked it too because it drew some of the loudest cheers of the evening when he defended the murders. We can see by the above argument, however, that the position that the government can justly kill someone is not consistent with the idea that God grants our fundamental rights, a position I’m certain Perry holds.


Similarly, you cannot justly let someone die through conscious inaction. The purpose of government, according to the God-gives-rights crowd, is simply to protect these rights so that others cannot tread on you. Well, if you have a right to life, and you have a government with a duty to protect that right, then what should the government do in situations where someone is dying a preventable death and the government can help? The government should do nothing to help if they don’t have insurance, according to Ron Paul. Again we have cheers from the crowd, and again we have an inconsistent position.


The situation may be less clear in the Paul example due to heavy privatization, but we can clearly see the problem if we take it out of the context of health insurance. Imagine you are a police officer and you walk by a situation where a robber is going to shoot a man. You happen to know this man is jobless and does not pay any taxes. Since your position as a police officer is funded by taxes, this man has not paid for your help. Now, should you, as the officer, step in and stop the robber from killing the man? Of course! I can’t imagine anyone saying otherwise. So, even though the State (everyone else) is footing the bill for the officer’s time, it would be unjust to let the man die when you have the ability to prevent it. A doctor is in a similar position. They can help in a way that others cannot, and if the government needs to foot the bill sometimes to prevent an unnecessary death, so be it. We would do it in any other area that wasn’t warped by the commercial mindset of health insurance companies and others like them.



So, positions that were espoused by two of the top four presidential candidates (and subsequently cheered by the crowd) are clearly inconsistent with their position that God grants our fundamental rights. To avoid the inconsistency, they will have to either give up their conclusions (the most sensible solution) or deny one of the premises in my argument. Don’t hold your breath for either to actually happen.

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  1. Ryan

    What if some rights automatically take precedence over others? Some might value property or “freedom” over life.

    What if some rights are not actually rights at all? Just because we say something is a right does not mean it is, though I admit that this is not a real problem here because the candidates do seem to mostly agree about what the rights are. You bring up a matter of consistency.

    And what if some rights can be lost if you violate them? Murderers violate others’ rights, so perhaps this means that their own are forfeit. This explains the death penalty, torture, and even imprisonment. From this perspective, humanity itself could be said to be lost when one violates a right.

    In any case, the candidates know that philosophical consistency is not important to their audience, and therefore not important to their campaigns. As long as they can tie Biblical morality to “common sense” while appealing to the Constitution, the crowds will eat it all up.

  2. John

    You say that if we have a God given right to life that the government (whose job it is to protect our rights) cannot take a life as a punishment. By the same logic, the government would also not be able to take property or imprison a person as a punishment. How is government to to protect our rights then? To solve this dilemma it is important to remember that men have the right to use physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use. It is the retaliatory use of force that we delegate to the government which is then able to impose punishments for the breaking of objective laws based on the protection of our rights. I do not believe in God. However, I do believe there are objective rights with the right to life being the most fundamental. A “right” is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context. A person’s right to life therefore means that he is free to act as he sees fit sustain his life. He is able work and trade to the mutual benefit of himself and others as they see fit, keeping the product of his labor to support his life. If a person chooses not to sustain his own life and die, the government will therefore respect that choice, because the government only protects his freedom to make choices concerning his own life. If he chooses to no longer sustain it then there is no contradiction.

    Now lets apply the above framework of rights to your comparison of the policeman and the surgeon. In a civilized society we delegate the retaliatory use of force to the government to ensure that there are objective laws requiring a burden of proof in order to determine guilt and proper punishments for the violation of rights. Policemen are also capable of helping out in an emergency, such as in your example of the robber and the poor man. I would like to stress, however, that it makes no difference to the situation who is paying the policeman. Suppose all policemen worked as volunteers or were only paid by the generous donations of a single very rich man. It doesn’t matter how or even if they are compensated for their work. Their responsibility and authority comes from a philosophical and legal framework separate from how or if they are compensated.

    Following from the above paragraph, yes, the poor man being victimized by a robber does have a right to life and the retaliatory use of force can come to his rescue. This is a very different situation indeed from the the sick man and the doctor, especially if the sick man brought about his own medical condition by making unhealthy choices such as smoking or a poor diet. The sick man’s rights have not been violated. In this situation you advocate using the government to pay the doctor to save the man’s life. But the government, as an entity of delegated retaliatory force, has no money! So instead of paying the doctor, would you say it was right to force the doctor at gunpoint to preform surgery, prescribe pills, do the checkups, etc.? What if the doctor refuses? There is no moral difference between forcing the doctor to work for free under the threat of imprisonment and death and forcing people to give up money under the threat of imprisonment and death to pay the doctor. How is it right for the government to violate individual rights in such a manner when it is wrong for individuals to violate each others rights this way? The government is not some special god-like entity above moral reproach. Instead it gets its power from us as individuals, and only those powers that are ours in the first place to give.

    Now, suppose the doctor donated his time and effort to save the man’s life. Also suppose that many individuals across the country donated money to pay doctors so they could help individuals who can’t afford to pay for their own medical treatment. In fact, suppose that those like you with active blogs spoke out to persuade individuals to donate to these funds instead of advocating the wholesale abrogation of individual rights. Wouldn’t that be better?

  3. Mike

    Hi, John. Thanks for the comment.

    I agree that is where the reasoning takes us – to say that under the God model, imprisonment, etc. is unjust. I think the God idea is basically indefensible with any modern political opinion. People seem to betray that what they really think is that the State says what rights we do and do not have. This is no big surprise for the atheist, but obviously runs counter to theistic claims.

    You said, “To solve this dilemma it is important to remember that men have the right to use physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use. It is the retaliatory use of force that we delegate to the government which is then able to impose punishments for the breaking of objective laws based on the protection of our rights.”

    How would this be supported under the God model. It’s not implied. I agree with you that people think this way, but it just shows they don’t really believe the line that the only way to secure our rights is to have them come from God and then other people cannot justly take them away. Any type of use of force would be unjust. You would be answering a wrong deed in the eyes of God with another wrong deed. So, I don’t see how the application of this principle can avoid the problem for those who say fundamental rights come only from God.

    The objective laws, punishments, etc. are all very obviously the product of societies and we can even track how they have evolved along with societies. Again, this all doesn’t look good for the God rights crowd. I’m not arguing against any rights; I’m arguing that people who make the initial case about God do not really follow what it entails.

    So, I don’t think you can find a way around any of the problems using this method for those who make the initial argument from my post (which is probably every Republican candidate). I’m not necessarily arguing for my own view (although I do believe the death penalty is unjust). I’m simply pointing out the inconsistency when you keep following that claim and compare it to actual statements and policies.

    I’m interested to discuss the doctor case further, but I’d like to know what precisely you think the role of the government should be. I’m guessing some kind of libertarian night watchman state, but I don’t want to mischaracterize your position. Could you spell that out for me if you’re still following this discussion?

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