Progressive activists object to State Department panel on ‘unalienable rights’
Religion & Liberty Online

Progressive activists object to State Department panel on ‘unalienable rights’

Two weeks ago the Department of State announced its intention to create a Commission on Unalienable Rights. The stated purpose of the Commission will be to “provide the Secretary of State advice and recommendations concerning international human rights matters. The Commission will provide fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.”

An unalienable right is a right that cannot be bartered away, or given away, or taken away except in punishment of crime. The role of governments is to “secure” these rights, not grant or create them. In securing such rights the government helps to advance human flourishing.

Unfortunately, not everyone in America agrees.

Politico pointed out that, “some activists fear [the Commission] is aimed at narrowing protections for women and members of the LGBT community.” Writing in the Washington Post, political scientist Clifford Bob says, “The Trump Commission on Unalienable Rights is likely to champion the “natural family” and “traditional values” (NB: Bob does not see this as a good thing.)

This is not surprising, for one of the most divisive claims in America politics today is found in the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.’” As Jeffrey Bell says in his book The Case for Polarized Politics, this is one of the key points of division in America between social conservatives and their opponents. “Most—not all—social conservatives believe the words in that sentence are literally true,” Bell writes. “Most—not all—opponents of social conservatism do not believe those words are literally true.”

Most self-identified social conservatives, especially those who are Christian, literally believe: that men and women were divinely created; that they have equal dignity; that rights are given by a personal God; that the right to “Life”—from conception to natural death—is an irrevocable gift to all humanity; that the right to “Liberty” comes with corresponding duties; and that the “pursuit of Happiness” is the means to seek human flourishing, a teleological end to liberty that is ordained, ordered, and constrained in purpose by God.

Promoting this idea of unalienable rights is a worthy objective of America’s foreign policy. But how effective can the State Department be in promoting this view abroad when it’s no longer a view shared at home?

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).