A couple of weeks ago, a heckler interrupted a speech by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. The heckler shouted pointed questions aimed squarely at Romney's faith, which, as just about everyone ought to by now, is Mormon. More interesting was what Romney said later in the speech: "We need a person of faith to run this country."
For all the talk from the religious right about the "war on Christmas" and discrimination against Christians from the secular left, it's interesting to note just how uncontroversial Romney's comment was. Frankly, the anti-Mormon bias against Romney is either being manufactured by his supporters (conservatives are great at playing the victim card, too), or is actually coming from other Christian conservatives. Polls show that seven of ten Americans would have no problem voting for a Mormon president. Romney will lose more voters for his position on any remotely controversial issue than he'll lose because of where he attends Sunday services. And none of Romney's opponents have made his faith an issue.
But coming from a candidate whose campaign and supporters have publicly complained about undue attention paid to their candidate's spiritual beliefs, Romney's comment, which basically excluded atheists and agnostics from the presidency, should have received more attention.
Perhaps it didn't because much of the public agrees with Romney. A recent Gallup poll found that—refreshingly—a solid majority of Americans would have no problem voting for a presidential candidate who was Catholic, black, female, divorced, elderly, Mormon, or gay. The only option on the poll that a majority of Americans couldn't bring themselves to support? An atheist.
Conservative cultural critic Michael Medved caught Romney's remark and those poll numbers and weighed in with an "Amen." "The Declaration of Independence makes clear that our inalienable rights come from God – we are 'endowed by our Creator,'" Medved wrote, "so that anyone who openly denies God's existence is likely to take the more conventional (and dangerous) view that rights are a gift from government, not the Deity. 'The government giveth, the government taketh away…'– the peril in this approach is too obvious to require explanation."
Actually, it isn't "obvious" at all. One needn't believe in a creator to believe in natural rights. Philosopher Immanuel Kant perhaps most famously arrived at a theory of natural rights absent any overarching deity.
But there are a host of other nonbelieving subscribers to the idea that we are born with fundamental, inalienable rights. Many of the most eloquent defenders of natural rights at the time of America's founding were deists, including Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen and, to a lesser extent, George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison. Deism isn't atheism (though many deists like Voltaire were deists only because atheism was illegal), but it's a far cry from "devout," too.
In fact, the truly radical thing about the Declaration of the Independence wasn't its religiosity, it was its abrupt departure from the centuries-old belief that kings inherited their power directly from God. It stated that government doesn't exist on the authority of God; rather, men are born with inherent, inalienable rights. Government exists only on the authority of and at the permission of the governed—men. In this respect, the Declaration made the case for a less faith-based form of governance, not more. In fact, Jefferson's original draft of the document contained no reference to a deity at all. It was the Congress that added the word "Creator."
Medved's critique grows more absurd when you consider the fact that our current president (whom Medved largely supports) has launched a full-scale assault on our natural rights, in many cases not in spite of his devout faith, but because of it.
Take the war on terror. President Bush has made no secret of the fact that the hand of God nudged him into office at the same time radical Muslims launched the attacks of September 11. He believes he was put in the White House by the divinity to fight the war on terrorism.
Since those attacks, his administration has declared that it has the power to spy on American citizens and foreign citizens on American soil without a search warrant; to arrest and detain them without giving them access to a lawyer; to torture them; to try them without a jury, all without letting them see the evidence (or in some cases, even the charges) against them, and with a lower standard of proof than in other criminal cases. Some of President Bush's supporters have even argued that the government should be able to arrest and imprison any journalists who dare to expose any of this.
And those are just enumerated rights. The power of the Constitution is not that it grants us the liberties expressed in the Bill of Rights, it's that it maintains we retain all rights, save for the small power we grant to the government to protect those rights. The Bill of Rights only expressly lists those rights necessary to preserve all the others. This is why we have the Ninth and Tenth Amendments. They're redundant, but James Madison and others thought they were necessary.
This administration has been even more hostile to unenumerated rights. The White House believes a sick person (or for that matter, a healthy person) doesn't have the right to smoke marijuana for relief; that he doesn't have the right to play a game of poker over the Internet; and that he doesn't have the right to consume pornography involving consenting adults—all within the privacy of his own home. They don't believe that long-suffering people have the freedom to end their own lives peacefully and painlessly. President Bush also believes the federal government has the power to take money from some people and use it to buy prescription drugs for other people. Only a word count limit prevents more examples.
None of these policies is remotely consistent with the theory that the people have inalienable natural rights, and that the government's only powers are those that we the people grant it in order to protect those rights.
Worse for the assertions of Medved and Romney, it is morality, and the faith that morality is derived from, that's driving these policies. Put another way, the faith of our leaders hasn't instilled in them a particular compulsion to uphold our natural rights. It has compelled them to subvert them. It's probably also worth noting that many (though not all) of the people resisting these policies are atheist or agnostic liberals and libertarians.
None of this is to say that religious people aren't capable of respecting our rights. There are of course countless devout believers who are also eloquent defenders of liberty.
But to say that a man without religion can't be trusted to respect our rights is nonsense. Especially when religious faith has motivated so many of our prior political leaders to erode them. Not least the man who currently occupies the White House.
Radley Balko is a senior editor at reason.