Today, on Christmas Eve, it seems appropriate to take a moment to consider the God-given gift of liberty.
I’ve had reason in the past to applaud John Stossel’s cogent libertarian views on a wide range of topics. Similarly, I’ve also noted the somewhat common “failing” of hardcore libertarians to embrace a belief in God. Many libertarians worship in the “church of reason”, you see, without truly reckoning with the fact that the rights they so cherish must, at some point, originate outside the mind of man in order to have any real meaning.
Stossel, unsurprisingly, is one such libertarian, a self-described “agnostic”, as demonstrated on a recent episode of his show on Fox Business. I’ve included a clip from that show below for any interested in his discussion on the matter of faith. We might take up that particular subject in more detail in the future, but, for today, I’d simply like to take a moment spotlight how central this issue was in the foundation of this country.
To this end, I’d like to share my response to a good friend on the issue of the 2nd Amendment. More particularly, our discussion was focussed on the reconciliation of one’s faith with some of the more troubling implications of an armed society. Most of that response, however, addressed the general relationship between “rights” and “duty” in our civil society and, as such, could be applied equally to other “rights”.
Admittedly, the 2nd has, traditionally, been more troubling than most….although today, in the age of “hate speech”, perhaps all of the basic rights identified in our Constitution have become, to many, similarly troubling. The underlying problem, however, is just how comfortable we are with the attendant obligations or duty that comes with liberty.
My take here is that the 2nd Amendment speaks as much to “rights” as it does to “obligations” (as do all rights, in my opinion). Whether we’re talking about the individual or “civil society”, there is a moral dimension to resolving the balance or relationship between rights and duties.
It is my belief that the “natural law” origins and context of our American civil society was unique insofar as it was intentionally designed to directly address the individual and personal imperative to resolve that issue. It’s worth adding that this is a uniquely (perhaps more Protestant) Christian perspective as well; meaning that it reflects a belief that our salvation is “worked out” in a personal and individual relationship with God.
Our founding fathers (or most of them, at least) believed that this process was not only facilitated by, but only really practical in, an environment where personal and individual liberty was protected at all costs. They wrestled with, among other things, the nature of legitimate authority, deciding in the end that, in this new nation, authority rested with the individual, not with the state.
The Constitution was intended, therefore, to delineate the limits of the state’s power, not the other way around. We, each of us as individuals, are expected to participate in this civil society only in accordance with the dictates of our conscience (aka “the social contract”).
None of us would knowingly give up any right without coercion. Nor are we to believe that such rights or the liberty to act upon them would, in any way, denote a lack of duty or of consequence. In the Christian context, the freedom either to sin or, alternatively, to submit to God’s authority comes to us within the same essential parameters.
This, I believe was exactly what the founders were trying to reinforce, or mimic, even. Rather than substitution of the State (or State Church) as proxy to God’s authority, as had always been done in the past, this concept of self-governance would protect the individual’s direct (“natural law”) relationship to God, to which we are all born.
For the first time in human history, American citizens, as individuals, were recognized as “sovereign” beings, not subject to any law but God’s and those various (freely contracted) civil arrangements, none of which could, legitimately, usurp God’s laws. Government’s role, it’s only role, it’s only legitimate role was/is: “to secure these rights”, meaning “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.
But, none of that directly answers the question of how, in practice, the sovereign citizen should responsibly fulfill the obligations of the 2nd Amendment. While I do tend to agree that the personal decision to carry a gun is, indeed, a separate issue, it is only separated by our own recognition, perhaps, regarding: a) the existence and nature of evil in the world and b) our obligation to deal with that evil.
Not surprisingly, these are issues that can only be effectively addressed as sovereign beings in accordance with Faith. The 2nd Amendment, in other words, simply declares (or re-affirms) the “self-evident” truth that man has the “natural right” to self-protection and (in a civilized society that is governed by the norms of the social contract) an obligation to contribute to the common defense (i.e. protecting others rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”).
More precisely, it reminds the government that it has absolutely no legitimate business trying to usurp (or “infringe” upon) those rights. The Constitution itself, as even Barack Obama concedes (and hates), is a document of “negative rights” that are intended only to constrain the federal government. It is merely a list of specific things that they must and must not do.
In that context, the 2nd Amendment (among other founding documents) might well be interpreted to suggest that it was intended, in part, as a reminder (both to each of us along with the government) that one of the principle dangers to “the security of a free state” was an unarmed people.
No one ever imagined that the State itself would ever be unarmed, after all. But they clearly did imagine that a standing army, combined with an unarmed populace, was an inherent threat to liberty, hence the necessity to facilitate the effective preservation of “the militia”.
It is interesting to note that interpretation was pretty uniform even up to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1939 US v. Miller decision, which addressed the regulation and taxing of short-barreled shotguns and machine guns. The case only dealt with the shotguns, as it happens, but noted that, in the absence of any evidence that such weapons would be useful in a military context (as none was actually submitted), they could see no reason that such weapons couldn’t be regulated. While there was, admittedly, contradictory logic in the decision, the notion that the 2nd Amendment was intended primarily to protect the “keeping and bearing” of typical military weapons by “the People”, seemed clear enough.
Now, I might tend to agree that “the security of a free state” is vulnerable to more than merely a corrupt and tyrannical government. To be sure, the 2nd Amendment was intended to ensure that a viable militia could be raised to face any number of threats, hmmm “both foreign and domestic”. That would surely include armed insurrection or invasion, for instance.
Still, it’s rather hard to ignore the writings of the day and the founders rather explicit warnings about the particular domestic threat of a tyrannical government. I would not single it out, but, then, I become somewhat more sympathetic to those concerns in the face of constant, active, on-going, never-ending attempts to infringe on the right. In other words, any attempt to thwart the 2nd Amendment’s primary purpose is, in of itself, material evidence of tyrannical government.
For the record, I might be just as squeamish as anyone when contemplating that “primary purpose” . You poignantly describe the moral and philosophical threshold you had to cross when dealing with your own right to self-defense. I had similar difficulties on this very matter at first.
Not having been raised (or educated) in the practical, historical, or moral dimensions of the subject, I was, naturally, uncertain about what my beliefs were or whether I was “mature” enough to handle the responsibility. This, sadly, is how we’ve devolved over the past 50-100 years.
You and I both, I suspect, have come to realize that a gun is merely an inanimate object, a tool, neither good nor evil. Such characterizations apply solely to those that wield them, whether to each of us as individuals or to those in positions of civil or military authority.
The only human counterbalance to a tyrannical government, like any evil enterprise, is our willingness and ability to mount an effective defense. Yes, as Christians, we might (and should) pray, too. We might (possibly should) even turn the other cheek.
But, the biggest part of our duty, I believe, is to actually protect others, especially those weaker than ourselves. This is the crux of the matter. While any libertarian, agnostic or not, will take a stand on simple self-preservation, the duty to protect others is, clearly, a matter of faith. What are your responsibilities to your fellow man?
Again, our founders took up arms against a tyrannical government, not for their own benefit, but for ours. And not merely so that we might prosper, to drive big SUVs or go shopping at the mall, but so that we might be free to “work out” our salvation without interference from thugs of all sorts, official or not.
Thus, comparatively, coming to grips with the right and duty to protect ourselves (which, you have to admit, is almost selfishly easy by comparison), it is far harder to accept the burden that we might, in certain circumstances, be called, even sacrificially, to protect the rights of others, especially those that don’t really give a rip.
Under what conditions or circumstances? Let’s leave that for another day.
Again, Merry Christmas. Let’s be grateful for the God-given gift of liberty and pray that we might use it wisely.