Rights are Social Contracts

Alternet (and Salon): America Is Not a Christian Nation and Never Has Been: Why Is the Right Obsessed With Pushing a Revisionist History?

Aside from the angle about the likes of David Barton rewriting American history to conform to the worldview of their audience, this piece fascinates me for the question of what ‘rights’ are.

If pressed, most liberals would probably agree rights stem from a combination of the social contract and a general understanding of what’s fair and not because God wrote down our rights on some stone tablet somewhere. We might even note that as much as right-wingers wish otherwise, our secular vision is what the Founders originally imagined. But for liberals, the very idea that we’re having a “debate” about this is asinine. Most of us are less worried about trying to figure out where rights come from than we are focused on defending human rights, usually from attacks from conservatives.

And of course,

What’s nice about the “rights come from God” theory is that it makes it easier to deny that new rights can be established. Since the 18th century, a lot of rights have been granted that didn’t exist back then: The right not to be enslaved, the right of all adults to vote, the right to have some time off from your job. Conservatives resisted each of these rights and continue on that path today, resisting more recently established rights, such as the right to be free from discrimination based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. By saying that God informed the Founding Fathers what rights there were, conservatives can claim that any rights that have been developed since then are illegitimate. Sure, it’s a lie, but it’s an awfully convenient one.

In the right-wing view, “religious freedom” becomes the “right” — given to you by God — to force fundamentalist Christianity on others. That’s how they can claim it’s “religious freedom” to force their religion on others by government-sponsored prayer, teaching creationism in schools, restricting access to abortion and contraception, and banning gay marriage.

Many questions like this would benefit from some elementary reality checks — in particular, to wonder how these matters play out in the many parts of the world that are not primarily dominated by Christian traditions. It’s true that many Asian nations do not have the same idea of ‘rights’ as US and European nations do, but this is not because they are guided by the Bible or some other religious text. We can similarly consider the idea that morals must derive from the Bible — that atheists, for examples, are moral anarchists. Reality check — do Christians truly not sense what is right or wrong without thumbing through their Bible to check the Ten Commandments (or Leviticus)? I think not. (Not to mention that numerous of the commandments and Leviticus invectives are not, in fact, enshrined in common law.)

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