Of Gods and Presidents: Your Presidents’ Day Post

Monday, February 19th, 2007

Mitt Romney recently responded to a heckler who attacked his Mormon faith by stating, "We need a person of faith to run this country."

In a just world, this would be a scandal far above and beyond Obama's "wasted" comment.  Romney and his supporters have already deflected as religious bigotry (correctly, in my view) the idea (supported by polls) that America isn't ready for a Mormon in the White House.  But Romney has no problem declaring that America isn't ready for an atheist or agnostic in the White House.  Frankly, that's offensive.

Of course, Romney's comment hasn't created much of a stir, likely because most of America agrees with him—86 percent, according to one recent poll.

As is often the case when religion is in the news, the dumbest take on all of this comes from the insufferable Michael Medved.  He writes:

The Romney campaign will no doubt correct many myths about Mormonism, but the public’s reluctance to support an atheist actually makes sense. The Declaration of Independence makes clear that our inalienable rights come from God – we are “endowed by our Creator” – so that anyone who openly denies God’s existence is likely to take the more conventional (and dangerous) view that rights are a gift from government, not the Deity. "The government giveth, the government taketh away…"– the peril in this approach is too obvious to require explanation. 

Similarly, any atheist would be far less willing to affirm absolutes, and far more likely to embrace moral relativism – a real problem in leading a country that’s currently threatened by absolute evil, and requires clear distinctions between timeless right and wrong. Without God, morality becomes negotiable and malleable, and defending God-given rights (for instance) becomes much less imperative.

Where to begin?  How about the fact that Thomas Jefferson, the author of the very Declaration of Independence Medved cites, was at most a deist, and likely an agnostic?  Jefferson — who even Medved euphemistically acknowledges in the same post was a “religious non-conformist” — had doubts about Christian faith in the supernatural that would probably make him damn-near unelectable today, certainly in Medved's view.

Many of the American founders were, of course, also deists, a philosophy that's hostile to religion, and in that its ultimate appeal is always to reason is the very antithesis of Romney and Medved's requirement that our political leaders be "men of faith."

Yes, Washington, Jefferson, Madison and others publicly made references and invocations to God.  I'd guess that's because they understood that the best way to get a nation of Calivinists to take up arms against the King was to convince them that God was on their side.  Every decent leader before and since has understood as much, from Ceasar to the Crusades to Tony Dungy.

Medved is also misguided in stating that for one to subscribe to natural rights theory, one must believe those rights are conferred by a deity.  Kant most famously arrived at natural rights theory without acknowledging a creator.  But even Locke, while not a deist, showed that one could arrive at natural rights through reason, not religious faith in the idea that innate rights have to come from a divinity.

Of course, a little common sense also reveals the silliness in Medved's post.  The idea that only a president who believes in God can respect our natural rights flies in the face of the countless example in human history of leaders who trampled all over the rights of their citizens precisely because they believed themselves to be acting on the authority of God.  Ask yourself, who's more likely to become a tyrant:  An atheist who believes he serves no power higher than his fellow man, or a man of faith who believes he's acting on the authority of God?

Which brings me to the most obvious refutation of Medved's offensive post—President Bush.  The same man who famously named Jesus Christ as the philosopher who most affected his thinking in the 2000 primaries has claimed the power to spy on U.S. citizens without a warrant, arrest them without a charge, detain them without a lawyer, hold them indefinitely without an indictment, torture them, try them in secret without giving them access to the evidence against them, and convict them without a jury.  Some in his administration even believe the government should be able to arrest journalists who dare expose these abuses, and charge them with treason. 

If you believe what some in the Bush administration have told reporters, President Bush has asserted these powers precisely because he believes he's acting with the guidance and blessing of God.  Medved in fact goes on to implicitly endorse these trespasses on natural rights later in the same post when he says that only a religious man can apprecicate the "good vs. evil" at stake in the war on terror.

Of course, that's just the beginning.  Bush's Justice Department, under the leadership of men-of-faith John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzalez has been incredibly hostile to the Fourth Amendment.  Bush's secret service doesn't seem to have much respect for the First Amendment, either.

And these are only the rights actually enumerated in the Constitution.  As Medved correctly explains, the Constitution only grants limited powers to the government.  We retain all rights not in direct conflict with those limited powers  The Bill of Rights, therefore, exists only to explicitly grant the rights the founders deemed most inviolable—basically, the rights necessary to preserve all of our other rights.  It was never meant to be exhaustive.  James Madison in fact opposed the Bill of Rights because he feared future generations would begin to see it as government granting only the enumerated rights to the people, and not merely a recitation of rights we already have.  That's why the framers included the Ninth Amendment, which I'm sure Medved would agree is under a proper interpretation of the Constitution redundant.

So how has man-of-faith Bush and his men-of-faith in the Justice Department Ashcroft and Gonzalez respected the Ninth Amendment and the unenumerated rights in the Constitution?

Please.  Given their contempt for the expressed rights in the Constitution, it shouldn't be surprising that Bush & co. have no concept of or respect for unenumerated rights.  If the Ninth Amendment means anything, one would think it would grant a sick person the right, within the privacy of his own home, to take a drug that alleviates his suffering.  But guided by their faith, a faith that says marijuana is immoral, Bush, Ashcroft and Gonzalez not only don't consider the medical marijuana an unenumerated right, they're willing to use federal coercion to override states that have determined such a right exists.  Gambling.  Pornography.  Access to prescription painkillers.  All are bald refutations of Medved.  Not only are they examples of the men-of-faith who run this country not respecting natural rights theory, they're examples where these men's faith itself is the reason they're using government to subvert our rights.

I'd also note that many (though certainly not all) of the people who have eloquently argued against these trespasses on our freedom are atheist or agnostic liberals and libertarians.

I'm not arguing that religiosity is incompatible with good government.  I'm arguing that it's offensive and contrary to all available evidence to suggest that only religious people are capable of respecting our rights.

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