When Unalienable Rights Become Alien

OW much do we really believe that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights when we so easily alienate the right to life, liberty, and happiness from the most vulnerable and powerless among us? Imagine the heartbreaking image of a dismembered child laying helpless, bloody, and writhing in pain, fighting for life, on a cold surgical table after a botched abortion. What rights has she been endowed with? Clearly none.

The truth is, and I’m not trying to be clever or cute, our founding fathers got it wrong. It is not self-evident that all people are created equal. Have we ever really believed that equality is self-evident, that it requires no argument, that it is universally accepted?

Would our founding fathers have considered it self-evident that the native Americans were endowed with unalienable rights and equality? Was it self-evident that men, women, and children ripped from their homeland in Africa and forced into slavery were equal and had rights that could not be alienated from them?

No. We’ve never really believed it was self-evident. We selectively applied it when it suited our purposes.

And Christians can’t pass the buck. I’m a member of a Southern Baptist church, and one need not look far to know our history is filled with leaders who justified slavery, racism, segregation, and severe inequality. What is self-evident is that all of us can find ways to excuse our sinful and inequitable treatment of others. Even those who claim to be Christians can easily deny the clear teaching of Scripture.

We need something more, something better, something deeper, than mere self-evidential arguments for equality and human rights. I’ve had the privilege to speak from a pulpit from which Martin Luther King, Jr. once preached. Reading his sermons you’ll find he pointed us to a truer foundation than what is self-evident. He pointed us to the biblical doctrine of the Imago Dei, that every human is created in the image of God and is endowed with intrinsic worth and dignity.

Let me be clear: that’s not a self-evident argument. It is not rooted in human intuition. It is something that had to be revealed. It confounds our egocentric view of the world and it confronts our selfish tendency to interpret as self-evident whatever best advances our agenda.

Maybe it’s because our founding fathers were too influenced by the popular deistic worldview in vogue in their day, the spirit of the age in which they lived. That certainly makes sense of their trying to ground human rights in what is self-evident instead of in revelation. One thing is certain, their argument doesn’t hold up.

The little baby, now outside the womb, that miraculous place that somehow made their life less than human, still finds no sanctuary in the sterile operating room of a hospital. What was once thought to be their defining moment, when, as one journalist described it, a final push from the mother, and a pull from the doctor, mysteriously turns these clumps of cells into a human being, is now just one more stage of denying their right to life. Their rights are alienated from them in the womb. Their rights are alienated outside of the womb.

Let’s just be honest, babies are not safe in America.

We’ve seen this before in so many tragic ways, in so many horrific moments in our history. If we don’t heed the biblical teaching that we humans have dignity and worth because we are created in the image of God, this will not be the end. History shows us that this is the logic that leads only to more bloodshed. As Ruth Graham once said, “If God doesn’t punish America, He’ll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.”

One thing is strong enough to stop it all, and it’s not what is self-evident. It’s the self-revealing God who shows us where worth is found. Under his authority, this can be made right. Until we look there, as C.S. Lewis said, history will just be the long sad tale of our search for something other than God that will make us happy. And nothing, not even a little baby’s cry, will stop us in our self-serving quest. That much is self-evident.

God help us all.