There are a lot of people talking about rights lately. They come at them from every angle: Is there a right to health care? How far does the right to free speech really stretch? Is there a right to marry? Are we loosing our right to religious expression?
Let me be blunt, there are no inalienable rights; Jefferson was lying. And he knew it. If life, liberty, and pursuit were inalienable rights, he wouldn’t have been protesting the perceived infringement of them. A truly inalienable right cannot be infringed upon.
So, what did he really mean? He meant something more along the lines of, “Any reasonable group of people can see that there are certain things that we all want, and that we have to give each other if we want to get along together.” Maybe the shorter version is, “There are some things which we find, inalienably, wrong.” At the time, it was clearly wrong to limit the right of a man to worship Jesus as he chose, be that man Catholic, Anglican, or even Unitarian. It was unquestionably wrong to limit the right of rich men to print things for others to read. It was wrong to take from a white male to support a government that he didn’t have a vote in.
At that time, the things he thought we should agree on did not include giving women the right to vote. It did not include recognizing most black people as people. While Jefferson himself sponsored general, secular education, he clearly did not mean that it was an inalienable right, as it was still uncommon in his day.
The rules for what agreements are required to call yourself civilized have changed over the years. The United States has, generally speaking, been behind the curve. Most of Europe, including Russia, recognized a woman’s “right to vote” before we did. Louis X abolished slavery in France in 1315. The so-called Bill Of Rights wouldn’t apply to most African-Americans until 550 years later. In most of the world, the right to love and to form families is different than it is in the US, with some places recognizing any couple that declares their love, and others giving women little to no say at all in the definition of heterosexual or “traditional marriage”, as some like to call it. This includes many counties where women are treated as cattle, and like livestock, a man can own as many as he can care for. In most “First World” countries, citizens, and even guests, have the right to medical treatment deemed necessary for quality of life. That is a contract that the citizens of those countries agreed upon to insure their rights, as they see them.
What this really boils down to, then, is that our “Rights” are really a contract. We agree on a basic standard that we will all be allowed, and in return, we know that we will never fall below that ourselves, and we get to feel like part of a society we can be proud of. That is what it means to agree to certain rights, and I think we can do better than limiting ourselves to only those things which seem “inalienable”. We have the infrastructure to allow for national healthcare. We could say to the world that no one in the US will ever again be forced to die of the flu; that, while we can’t save every patient, we can say that cancer or heart disease will no longer destroy the lives of whole families. We can say that we recognize Love as an ideal, and that it is hard enough to find in this world without limiting where you are allowed to look for it.
Our rights are defined by the society we live in. They were not handed down from on high, or we would never have to fight over them. There would be no debates about whether our government ought to “Give to the one who asks” (Mat 5:42), if we are truly a Christian Nation, or if that should be left to the individuals and charity groups. There would be no debate, if there were truly rights.
All rights can be revoked by the society that grants them. The Government, acting as the agency of the people, can refuse to recognize so-called rights in individual cases, and those rights change nation by nation, state by state. We choose what kind of country we want to be, and it has nothing at all to do with what is or is not already a right. It has to do with what we decide is the right thing to do for one another. It is how we define civilization in current terms, and how we wish to be seen both by our fellow Americans, and by the rest of the world.
There is no right that cannot be bestowed or revoked by the enforcement of the government. There is no government that can rule without the acquiescence of the people. Our government, in particular, is one of the people, and thus there is no right which we cannot choose to share with our peers. We can choose to live in a better world. We’ve done it some 28 times in the history of the United States, the first time by completely rewriting the basic structure of the government. We have a responsibility to continue to that work, to improve the civilization we share and leave to future generations.