America: Under Rights or “Under God”?

by | Aug 1, 2003

Does the assertion that individuals possess inalienable rights square with the belief that a nation should be "under God"?

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is the most treasured phrase in the American lexicon. Yet this summer, astride the 228th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, a debate continues not over, say, how well Jefferson’s words have been realized, but over another phrase entirely: “under God” in the pledge of allegiance.

The juxtaposition of those two phrases, of the concepts each implies, raises an interesting question: Does the assertion that individuals possess inalienable rights square with the belief that a nation should be “under God”?

To arrive at the answer, one must compare the ideals encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence with those expressed in the writings from which the “under God” advocates primarily derive their views: the Bible.

To begin, the right to life means that each individual owns his own life. But scriptures, by contrast, teach that God owns one’s life and, furthermore, that concern with one’s own “earthly” existence is somewhat petty or spiritually shallow. Jesus counseled, “Take no thought for your life…nor yet for your body…” (Matthew 6:25). And Saint Paul proclaimed, “[I] hold not my life of any account as dear unto myself” (Acts 20:24).

Indeed, for the traveler in religious circles, spouting off about his right to life – unless the topic is abortion– will more likely earn him condemnations for being selfish than commendations for being Jeffersonian. Once outside the womb and inside a church, one’s right to life is over as far as religion is concerned.

Well, what about liberty? America’s founders extolled it, but the Bible certainly doesn’t. Ephesians 6:5 demands, “be obedient to them that are your masters.” And 1st Peter 2:18 exhorts, “[be] subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward [harsh].”

But more incongruous with individual rights than the Bible’s approving nod at actual slavery is its universal call for self-imposed servitude. If not born a slave, Jesus would have you act like one. From the surrendering to the poor of all your worldly possessions to the washing of your “brothers'” dirty feet, the message of Christianity is certainly not “man, seeketh political liberty” but rather “man, conform thyself to servitude.” The only “liberty” the Bible consistently promotes is liberation from the flesh, in other words, death.

By contrast, revolutionary hero Patrick Henry, though somewhat of a religionist himself, was nonetheless “worldly” enough to declare, “Give me liberty or give me death!” as opposed to “Give me death so I may have liberty!”

Indeed, had America’s founders been the devout Christians modern fundamentalists fancy them as, they could never have mustered the fortitude to rebel against the British Crown. How could one cast off the chains of oppression while simultaneously subscribing to the Biblical teaching that it’s virtuous to obey harsh masters?

Well, what about pursuing happiness? Clearly, it was esteemed in Independence Hall, but it fares poorly in the pages of the Bible, wherein pleasure-seeking is derided while suffering gets top billing. The prophet Jeremiah, for instance, is revered for wearing an ox yoke (Jeremiah 27:2). And John the Baptist was renown for enduring a camel hair shirt and eating only bugs (Matthew 3:4). And don’t forget Ezekiel, whom God ordered to consume meals cooked with manure (Ezekiel 4:12-15).

Like John’s hair shirt, I only scratched the surface. Misery-mongering and suffering-worship are part and parcel of the Bible, while “earthly” happiness is virtually always scorned.

The question is answered. The concept that individuals possess inalienable rights is incompatible with the notion that we are “under God.” And when Jefferson and the others were presented on a silver platter the opportunity to form a nation based on Christian convictions, they didn’t. Other than a couple of generic references to a creator, neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution contains any of the central tenets of Christianity. Search as you may, you will find no mention of Jesus, original sin, repentance, otherworldly bliss or torment, revelations, prophecies, self-sacrifice — none of it.

Just imagine how the Declaration of Independence might read had it been scrawled by religionists: We hold these revelations to be prophetic, that all men are created evil, that they are encumbered by their creator with certain inescapable plights, that among these are death, servitude and the pursuit of suffering.

That “Declaration” is far more in keeping with the teachings of the Bible than is anything the Founders ever wrote.

As the anniversary of Independence Day recedes–and the anniversary of Black Tuesday approaches– consider the full ramifications of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And then remember that America’s religious fundamentalists aren’t the only ones wanting “one nation, under God” – so do the Taliban and Al Qaida.

Wayne Dunn writes about political and cultural events from an Objectivist perspective.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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