As an atheist, I suppose I should be deeply troubled by Ted Cruz's God-heavy presidential announcement. Although the Texas senator's blast of old-fashioned American exceptionalism garnered most of the chortling media's attention, it's what troubles me the least about his aspirations. If the politicians treated the ideals of the Enlightenment as if they were handed down from heaven rather than a pliable set of guidelines perpetually bending to accommodate the vagaries of contemporary politics, I imagine the world would be a better place. They don't.
As one reporter for Yahoo! News asked during Cruz's speech on Twitter: "Bizarre to talk about how rights are God-made and not man-made in your speech announcing a POTUS bid? When Constitution was man-made?"
The Declaration of Independence 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." This founding document informs the Constitution, which restricts government from meddling in important areas of our lives. That's how the Founders saw it. That's how we've pretended to see it for a long time. Some of us believe that these natural rights, divine or secular, are universal, that they can't be repealed or restrained or undone by democracy, university presidents, or rhetorically gifted presidents.
If that's God's position—or, more specifically, if enough people think that's His position—well then He's my co-pilot, as well.
By the way, here's John F. Kennedy in his Inaugural Address on Jan. 20, 1961: "And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God."
On one side of the deep cultural divide, the very notion that God tells us anything is silly. That's why you see many journalists react with confusion or with contemptuous tweets or feel the need to highlight something so obvious. On a political level, the idea that God can give us unalienable rights only threatens an agenda that doesn't exactly hold your right to live in peace without interference sacred. And this lack of reverence for rights will lead to a serious battle between religious freedom and progressive aims.
And for those who believe the primary source of human decency and fairness is the Internal Revenue Service, the idea that a magical being has conferred rights on us that restrict state-driven do-gooderism is problematic. If you imagine the Constitution is merely as "man-made" (like, say, a gun-control bill or Medicaid expansion), then contemporary men can fix it. They can do this by whittling away what's wrong and adding what's moral whenever they see fit. They can start by tacking new rights on whenever something troubles them or whenever it's advantageous to do so. FDR already thought up the Second Bill of Rights, a list that has essentially superseded the original for many liberals.
Not long ago, President Obama argued that health care—and by this he means Obamacare—was a "right." The idea is that a right to buy insurance in a fabricated state-run marketplace is more vital than the right to self-defense (that one Obama isn't crazy about). A few years back, the president argued that "dignity and opportunity aren't just gifts to be handed down by a generous government or by a generous employer; they are rights given by God, as undeniable and worth protecting as the Grand Canyon or the Great Smoky Mountains." I imagine this idea is shared by many millions.
Was that bizarre? Does a government have the fundamental right to provide all citizens with a good paycheck or a union job assembling subsidized wind turbines? If there is a God, I suspect he may well want us to get rid of the IRS and pass a flat tax so we can fill our returns on a postcard every year. But that issue, like the right to free community college, is a matter of contemporary policy and process, not a right.
What is the promise of America? The revolutionary idea that this country was founded upon, which is that our rights don't come from man. They come from God Almighty.
Cruz's speech, with too many bromides for my own tastes, was the kind of unadulterated American idealism that the smart people in Washington like to ridicule. "God's blessing has been on America since the very beginning of this nation. And I believe God isn't done with America yet," Cruz says. I dunno. I hope so. "Revolutionary" or not, Cruz's contention that we are providentially guaranteed certain rights is a basic idea of American history, one that journalists should be well acquainted with. And don't get me wrong; I don't have high hopes for the Ted Cruz administration. But mocking him for restating traditional ideals about faith's role in governance is bizarre.