On “rights & God.” I’ve blogged about this before but think I will mention it again because it’s a line of reasoning common among conservative evangelicals who wish to claim the American Founding, especially the Declaration of Independence (and many more sophisticated Christian conservatives reject the DOI for reasons similar to what I’m about to write).
Farah debated a gay conservative leader of GOProud and tried to invoke the American Founding, in particular the DOI. The Founding Fathers did not support gay rights (a concept unknown to them) and, from what I’ve seen didn’t think too much about homosexuality, which remained deep in the closet. Sodomy laws had long been on the books and the FFs didn’t give much thought to removing them. Jefferson, apparently, supported making sodomy a non-capital crime in a proposed revision to the VA criminal code, a code that also sought to decriminalize bestiality. You can google what that reduction for sodomy was.
I haven’t seen any evidence that one person was executed in post Founding America (I’m not even sure about pre-Founding America) for the crime of sodomy. And the Cato Institute, in their brief submitted in Lawrence v. Texas, argued (unrebutted so far) that sodomy law prosecutions/convictions invariably involved men raping other males, which may explain why Jefferson wanted to decriminalize bestiality, but not sodomy.
Still, the laws did their damage in other ways and are rightly off the books.
Where I think Farah errs is his philosophy of rights/God/the DOI. It goes something like this: 1) Rights come from God; 2) God tells us what is sin in the Bible; 3) therefore there can not be a “right” to do what the Bible forbids. Proof text, proof text, proof text the Bible. That’s what Farah argued during the debate.
The problem with this sentiment is manifold. Leaving aside the issues of whether God exists and whether the Bible is true, it’s not what the Bible says; it’s not what the DOI said; and it’s not what the Founders said or did as a matter of principle. And the Founders wisely avoided this method (prooftexting the Bible to find what our unalienable rights are) because it didn’t work for them, and in fact was what they were trying to get away from.
First, the Bible doesn’t mention the concept of unalienable rights. And many smart evangelical/fundamentalists reject the concept for this very reason. I know you can construct a theological case for unalienable rights based on Imago Dei, in the same way you can construct other theological doctrines that are disputed on Sola Scriptura, and other theological grounds, like original sin or TULIP. But the first step for proof-texting evangelicals is to realize the Bible doesn’t specifically mention the concept of unalienable rights.
Second, the DOI says that men have unalienable rights to life, liberty (meaning political liberty) and the pursuit of happiness. But it does not cite verses and chapters of Scripture for that or any proposition and does not identify God as Jehovah or the God of the Bible. The DOI does not say “look it up in the Bible” to determine the special content of our unalienable rights.
Third, the Founding Fathers recognized men had an unalienable right to do wrong in some instances, or at least what many orthodox (and non-orthodox) Christian believed to be wrong. The rights of conscience were the most “unalienable” of liberty rights. And holding that your neighbor has the right to worship God (or not) according to his conscience and to freely speak his mind on why he so does invariably grants men a right to break the first table in the Ten Commandments, most notably the First Commandment itself.
The Founding Fathers believed in granting the right to worship universally, to Christians and non-Christians. That includes Jews, Muslims, Hindus. Most orthodox Christians believe Hindus worshipped false gods (I suppose there is always a potential Acts 17:23 defense for Hindus, seems a stretch though). Many, but not all, orthodox Christians believe Muslims worship a different God. And a few notable orthodox Christian theologians believe Jews worship a different god than Christians because Jews don’t worship a Triune God.
Back then, I think more orthodox Christians — at least the theologians — would agree Jews and Christians worshipped different gods. And here is where the unitarian controversy which I am so fond of writing about is relevant. The second and third American Presidents were militant unitarians. The first and fourth may well have been unitarians (certainly they never spoke in overtly Trinitarian language) and Ben Franklin politely and gently affirmed unitarian doctrines. Even if their views were “unrepresentative” of the larger era, the fact that played such prominent roles (among other things, they wrote the DOI) means American political-theology had to fully accommodate them.
When reading the theological debates of that era, we see the unitarians and trinitarians accused one other of breaking the First Commandment, of worshipping different gods. The orthodox theologians argued God was Triune in nature, and hence unitarians (and Jews, logically speaking) worshipped different gods. Since God is Triune, their gods (those of any non-Trinitarian) were false.
The unitarians were more generous in recognizing trinitarians worshipped the one true God of the Universe whenever they worshipped God the Father. But worshipping Jesus as God was 100% sinful idolatry (to the more pious unitarian; the more latitudinarian unitarians probably thought worshipping Jesus as God more silly than sinful) and wrongly took rightful worship away from the Father — the only Person who deserved to be worshipped as God.
So granting religious liberty to unitarians & trinitarians alone necessarily means giving men an unalienable right to sin according to each’s respective understanding of the Bible.
Finally, the Founding Fathers, especially when they moralized, rarely cited verses and chapters of scripture as “proofs” to settle things. Rather they preferred speaking in a more general philosophical language of “Nature” as discovered by man’s reason. (This is not to say that they didn’t speak in biblical metaphor — they commonly did, even, indeed especially Thomas Paine, when talking politics.) And that’s because they knew just how disputed, just how much blood had been shed over sectarian religious squabbles, especially those where the parties disagreed on how to interpret Scripture.
The Founders recognized, contra many of today’s conservative evangelicals, it’s not just so “easy” to look something up in the Bible to settle things. The Bible is one thick, complicated book that lends itself to multiple interpretations, some more “literal” than others. After Rome lost its monopoly on political theological matters, the Christian West went to war in literal and figurative senses over matters of sectarian biblical interpretation.
For instance, there are powerfully convincing arguments in Christendom that hold Romans 13’s prohibition on revolt is absolute, that what the FFs did against Great Britain — indeed what they said God gave them a right to do — was as sinful as witchcraft. In this sense, the American Founding was anti-Christian and anti-biblical. The Christians in England and the many (perhaps as many as 1/3!) who remained loyalists in America were sympathetic to this understanding of Scripture which for all we know is the “right” one.
But the Founders had no interest in that method of debate. “Nature” had already determined that men had an unalienable right to revolt against tyrants. So go back and interpret the Bible accordingly, even if, as Rev. Samuel West instructed in 1776, we have to conclude that St. Paul was joking in Romans 13.
The Founders removed revelation from politics; that was the only way to solve the political theological sectarian wars based on how to properly interpret revelation. Government therefore would no longer care whether the Bible really taught original Sin, TULIP, Trinity, eternal damnation. And any political matters that stemmed therefrom was consigned to the realm of private conscience.
The bottom line is, in order to make an “American” argument you have to do better than “the Bible says it’s sin, therefore there can be no right to it.” No, the American Founders held, as a matter of principle, in certain circumstances, men had an unalienable God given political liberty right to do what the Bible terms sin. The alternative was to continue religious persecution and sectarian bloodshed.