In recent public appearances Mitt Romney has been reminding his audiences that “our founding fathers said that our Creator has endowed us with rights. Not the government, but our creator.” His reference is to the US Declaration of Independence that states:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
What he fails to mention is that this theological affirmation – as important as it may be – is not found in the US Constitution, the document that actually constitutes the United States as an independent nation and delineates the rights American citizens have in law.
In the constitution it is “We the People” who both bring the nation into existence and fix its laws, not “the Creator.” God may have endowed all humans with inalienable rights, but our rights as US citizens are granted and protected by ourselves as the custodians of the nation, and by our elected representatives.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The distinction is important because it has everything to do with what it means to be a citizen of the United States. A citizen is a person whose identity is defined by a specific set of rights and obligations in relation to a nation. The obligation of the individual citizen in relation to the United States, like the obligation of all our elected officials, isn’t to uphold and implement the laws of the Creator. Citizens as such don’t have rights and obligations relative to the Creator. The duty of the citizen is to uphold and implement the constitution that we citizens created and and such laws as are consistent with it. It is we who granted ourselves the authority to run our nation, and it is we who are responsible to ourselves in the running of it. The US Constitution is clear on this.
If you want an example of a constitution based on God’s relationship to the nation read Article 2 of the constitution of Iran.
“The Islamic Republic is a system based on belief in:
1.the One God (as stated in the phrase “There is no god except Allah”), His exclusive sovereignty and the right to legislate, and the necessity of submission to His commands;
2.Divine revelation and its fundamental role in setting forth the laws.
3.the return to God in the Hereafter, and the constructive role of this belief in the course of man’s ascent towards God;
4.the justice of God in creation and legislation;
5.continuous leadership (imamah) and perpetual guidance, and its fundamental role in ensuring the uninterrupted process of the revolution of Islam;
6.the exalted dignity and value of man, and his freedom coupled with responsibility before God; in which equity, justice, political, economic, social, and cultural independence, and national solidarity are secured by recourse to . . . . .
In Iran the individual citizen, and his or her elected and self-appointed officials, are responsible to God for the running of the nation, or at least the particular idea about God held by the Iranian Supreme Council.
So what about Christians in America? What is our distinctly Christian responsibility toward our nation? And as importantly – what is our Christian responsibility considering that we share this nation with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and dozens of other religious groups? Where, we might ask, does our ultimate loyalty lie? And to whom are we most responsible: God who we know endowed us with our rights, Or our nation and fellow citizens who claimed these rights as their own and took responsibility for implementing them?
And what is the responsibility of our nation to us as Christians? Or for that matter to any religious people? Spoiler alert: I think we’ll need to negotiate this among the people of many different religions through dialogue, a perfectly legitimate political dialogue, rather than make demands on the basis of myths of historical precedence and dominance.