Thou shalt bear arms?

When this whole presidential election thing is over, I’d love to have the chance to sit down and talk with Newt Gingrich about something he’s been saying for a long time. (I first heard it when he was in town to give a speech endorsing Sharron Angle for Senate.) Melding the Declaration of Independence (“we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…”) and the Bill of Rights (“…the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed…”) Gingrich has concluded, essentially, that God wants us to be strapped.

Really? Really. Check out this clip of a Gingrich speech featured on The Colbert Report, and suitably mocked by Stephen Colbert.

Now, Gingrich is a recent convert to Roman Catholicism, so perhaps he hasn’t absorbed all the material yet, but the one thing that comes unmistakably from the study of the Christian religion is this: You have no rights whatsoever. Not life, not liberty and not the pursuit of happiness. In fact, the only real thing you’ve got a right to–according to Christianity–is to reap the wages of sin and death as the righteous consequence of your failings. The entire premise of Christianity, in fact, is that a sinful human race is rescued by the grace and mercy of God alone from eternal torment by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and simple faith in the same.

Consider St. Paul‘s letter to the Romans, at three key points:

  • “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:22-23)
  • “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)
  • “That if you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)

Do you see anything about rights in there? Do you see anything about deserving anything from God? In fact, when Job (in the Old Testament) made the barest protest as to his rights, demanding to know why God was allowing him to suffer notwithstanding the fact that Job had led a righteous life, God basically replied that Job was no one to question the Almighty.

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone–while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? (Job 38:4-7)

This dialogue goes on for quite a while, after which Job is forced to acknowledge–as we all are in the face of the Almighty–”I am unworthy–how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once but I have no answer–twice, but I will say no more.” (Job 40:4-5)

Set against this context, it’s clear the authors of the Declaration of Independence were making a bold but throughly unsupportable claim when they wrote that God endowed us with our rights. They knew full well that if a grant of rights came from government, it could be taken away by government, something they’d witnessed all too often in their history. In fact, they were tired of hearing about the divine right of kings (sourced to Romans 13: 1-2, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”) And the framers of the Declaration surely were rebelling against authorities!

By claiming God as the author of our rights, the framers sought to put the truncation of our rights beyond human action. It’s survived as a working political construct for hundreds of years, and even been exported to other nations as an idea. But the real God of the Bible would not recognize the rights identified by Thomas Jefferson and others; to God, freedom is submission to divine command. (“You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness,” Romans 6:18.) Remember the story of Genesis: The freedom of Adam to eat any fruit in the Garden of Eden–the pursuit of what he believed at the time would be happiness–led him to sin against God’s command, and thus to condemn the whole of mankind.

So, while being endowed by our creator with inalienable rights may work as a political construct (even atheists are endowed with these rights, notwithstanding the fact that they disbelieve in the creator who so endowed them!) it fails as a religious one. And I’d love to see if Gingrich really believes that God has declared that the government may not search our homes without a warrant, may not quarter troops in our houses, may not take our property without just compensation and may not put us on trial without the ability to confront witnesses against us. Those are all good and valid ideas, but they come from us, not from God. He’s far more concerned with the salvation of our souls–here on earth, and into eternity–which we obtain not by right, but by his grace and mercy alone.




5 Responses to “Thou shalt bear arms?”

  1. Steve,

    To make this argument stick, you’d have to develop a chapter-by-chapter refutation of Locke’s Second Treatise–the philosophical foundation from which the concept of God-given ‘natural rights’ arise. Locke, of course, wasn’t working within the Roman-Catholic doctrinal framework, but was Cartesian philosopher with a Puritan background. Hence, Newt’s ideas about the right to bear arms is not the progeny of his Catholic affiliation, but is ultimately rooted in Cartesian philosophy.

    Of course, one may draw one’s own conclusions about whether traditional Catholic doctrine is the most appropriate method of understanding man’s relationship to God, or whether the individualist philosophies of the Enlightenment period are more appropriate for doing so, but one doesn’t get far by examining one solely through the lens of the other.


  2. daniel B. says:

    you would base your facts on an idiot’s rantings, besides, no organized religion has any bearing on the rights of an american citizen to feed/defend themselves

  3. Geoff: Forget Catholicism, Locke or Cartesian philosophy. Forget Gingrich, even: One cannot from the biblical text conclude that man has any natural rights, other than the natural right to inherit the stain of original sin. This is yet another reason for a healthy separation between church and state, since they are meant to address different human needs.

  4. Doug Smith says:

    What the Founders were trying to establish is that man is a sovereign entity and has the right of self-determination. He (man) cedes power to government for the protection of the person and property of the man. Conversely, some hold that government holds all rights and cedes to man those rights it thinks necessary for his maintenance. God gives man “agency” – the right and responsibility to choose for himself good or evil. Further, through the Abrahamic Covenant, God gives man the “right” to lands (property), seed (wherein Abraham’s posterity is given to him as an never ending covenant), and the pursuit of happiness (blessings for righteous living). Another example is in Adam who was given the earth and told (given rights) to go forth and subdue it. Moreover, as all things are God’s and we are joint heirs with Christ through the covenant of baptism, we are given an inheritance (rights) based on the covenant made with Abraham. So, indeed, we do have unalienable rights – those rights that are promised and secured to us by God through His covenant. We will obtain these blessing or rights regardless of government and government has no right to take them away, though it might have the power to do so. Just because government has the power to take our property does not mean they have the right to do it. All men are born free. If they are not free it is by the action of others and offensive to God who gave them life. So, therein, they have the right to life. As I already mentioned, man is sovereign and as such is at liberty to determine his own destiny. Happiness comes from living God’s law and we not only have the right to do it but are commanded to. So, there you have it, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – all God given.

  5. Rob Folker says:

    Steve, by saying “the only real thing you’ve got a right to–according to Christianity–is to reap the wages of sin and death as the righteous consequence of your failings” you seem to be using man’s depravity as the basis for claiming that man has no rights from God, because man doesn’t deserve any rights.

    While I agree “that a sinful human race is rescued by the grace and mercy of God”, we have tremendous value because God gave His only Son as a sacrifice for our sins and to give us the hope of eternal salvation.

    If God gives us no rights, then He wouldn’t give us free will. You use the story of Adam to make the case that man will invariably make the wrong choice, if given free will. I guess the implication is that then God shouldn’t have given us free will, but He did. He made us free moral agents. Therefore the right to make our own decisions, and thus all rights, flow directly from this gift of free will given to us by God. Just because we’re not free from the consequences of our exercise of free will and the inherit rights therein doesn’t mean those rights don’t exist. To think rights come from anything else other than God will only pervert them. Government and others often want to manipulate us by being seen as the origin of rights, so they can change them or take them away as they see fit. A point, which you concede. If you are correct, then no human rights exist at all. Why would anyone even make such an argument?