The headline dwarfed the subject. "Calling in the Big Guy" was the headline. The entire post was a single sentence by a respected public personality I admire very much. "I think," posted Josh Marshall, "Paul Ryan just said God wants us to repeal ‘Obamacare’."
The link was to a short article relating an interview with Representative Ryan (R-WI), Chairman of the Budget Committee. Paul Ryan was explaining why the House should vote down Obamacare.
We disagree with the notion that our rights come from government, that the government can now grant us and define our rights. Those are ours, they come from nature and God, according to the Declaration of Independence – a huge difference in philosophy.
Now, I see nothing in Obamacare that implies a theological position on the origin of human rights. But, as to whether rights are granted by government or come from a higher source (God, nature, the Universe) Ryan was ...well... on the side of the angels.
The ideological struggle of documents goes back at least to Abraham Lincoln. Stephen Douglas defended slavery as at least a semi-moral institution because it conformed to Constitutional law as it then existed. Lincoln saw the Constitution as the foundation of legal authority, but presented the Declaration of Independence as the founding inspiration of the nation. Douglas defended slavery as a legality. Lincoln argued that rights did not depend on legality. The law might respect rights, might protect them, or might overrule and trample on them. But those rights existed whether they were respected or not.
It was a struggle to define the American spirit as either a smug shelter for the comfortable, or as a sanctuary of hope for those whose rights might be respected in the fullness of time.
Four years ago I celebrated Independence Day thinking about 40 slaves who escaped from two owners during the American Revolution. The two were George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Every few years a debate is renewed about whether the American experiment was a lie from the start. It was widely accepted, to the point of cliche, that slavery was America's original sin. When, a few years ago, Condoleezza Rice uttered an equivalent sentiment, that slavery was America's birth defect, what should have been an unexceptional observation provoked conservative fury. Some, even today, find some virtue, some bright side, in that evil institution.
That the freedom of slaves was not respected, was violated, does not negate a simple fact, that the right to freedom existed and that it was intrinsic.
We see the idea of rights as privilege to be granted in the lament I heard as a youth. It was common in those days of civil rights and backlash to hear angry cries wondering what "they" wanted when "we" had already given them so many rights. We still hear it today. When Maine, a few years ago voted down gay rights, a friend celebrated a victory for democracy. "I'd say it's one thing to present an issue/platform squarely to voters and let them vote," he wrote, "and another to simply get people elected who covertly share your agenda. The latter looks more like a coup than republican government." Rights were a matter to be decided by a vote.
Even more recently, as voter suppression laws treat the ballot as a privilege that must be earned by sometimes arduous effort by some, occasionally the idea is verbalized. Recently an executive order was issued by the Governor of Iowa. Felons who had served their time, who had paid their legal debt to society would be allowed to vote. But they must first meet requirements, including the submission of credit reports. They can now vote if they have good credit. There is some debate about whether felons have the right to vote at all. But does anyone really think that question depends on financial success?
The interesting thing was a direct quote from the Secretary of State, an enthusiastic advocate for the requirement, who said restrictions "send a message to Iowa's voters that their voting privilege is sacred and will not be compromised." Freudian slip, perhaps, that reference to voting privilege.
The conflict is between those who celebrate the achievement of freedom as an accomplishment, and those who see the American spirit as a hope and a direction. In fact, the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice, and the Declaration of Independence is explicit. It describes what the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King called a huge promissory note.
But the arc is jagged and the reverses are painful. "The cost of freedom is always high," said John F. Kennedy, "but Americans have always paid it." The young President was speaking of military sacrifice of body and life, and a shared sacrifice that was more accepted then than now. But the greatest price was and is and ever will be paid involuntarily by those whose intrinsic rights are violated as the nation makes the slow trek upward. Minorities who could not vote, who lived and died in American apartheid, gay people who have suffered hostility and denigration, and those who are simply left behind.
I celebrate the Independence Day of those 23 slaves who fled from Jefferson and the 17 who escaped from Washington, and I mourn the price paid by those millions who died still in captivity. "I tremble for my country," said the contradictory Jefferson as he contemplated slavery, "when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever." I celebrate the American Dream as a journey not completed. We have promises to keep.
There are those among us who find themselves drowning. The American Dream is about more than freedom to dicker the highest price for a lifeline, a narrow freedom enshrined by a philosophy of every man for himself, every woman for herself, children consigned to a tightrope without a net.
Representative Ryan looks upon "a huge difference in philosophy". And he is right. Perhaps, one day, he and those who stand with him defiantly in the hospital door will realize the irony of their words. Perhaps they will find it in their hearts to come toward the bright sunshine of human rights. God given human rights.
I believe it is possible, for I know that my Redeemer lives.
I tremble for my country, but I hope.
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