Wednesday, September 22, 2010

President Obama Drops "Creator" From The Declaration of Independence

In a speech given to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus at its 33rd annual gala, President Barack Obama cites the preamble to the Declaration of Independence in an effort to cite the values that unite all Americans and make us strong...



Many conservatives have savaged Obama for intentionally dropping "Creator" from the preamble. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I don't think he misquoted the Declaration of Independence intentionally. As a pastor, I sometimes find myself accidentally mangling a Bible verse or a quote - even at times a passage with which I'm normally very familiar. That kind of thing can happen when you're speaking in public. (We all remember how Chief Justice Roberts mangled the presidential oath, right?) So, I'm willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. It's also possible there was a mistake with the Teleprompter.

Nevertheless, the mistake is worth acknowledging. It's worth pointing out, because the principle at stake is no small matter. According to the Founding Fathers, people are not "endowed" with "unalienable rights" by happenstance, evolution, majority consent, or the government. According to Thomas Jefferson and the Second Continental Congress, our fundamental rights come from the Creator.

As Jefferson famously asked in his Notes on Virginia: "Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?"

That a human being's fundamental rights come from a divine, intelligent Creator is a core value central to the nation's founding and one our government and all American Presidents should embrace.

31 comments:

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Being a progressive, don't you think Obama's correction is in line with the progressive understanding of Western history via science? Science understands that the cosmos was not created, but came about by evolution. Evolution is what is being standardized in our public schools, and underwrites many of the academic disciplines. Obama has scienctists that have counselled him concerning many issues. So, why are we surprised that Obama misses using "the Creator"?

L.Long said...

As anyone who studies history can tell you...
The 'rights' are given by the gov'ment. What 'rights' did someone have in medieval europe?? What ever the nobility (gov'mint) allowed. Where was this S/He/IT creator then???? In the case of the US it is again from the gov'mint supported by the voting populace. Again try to have life-liberty-etc as a xtain in iran, Bet your 'creator' wont be helping you there. You have those freedomes here because MEN made it happen and you will enjoy those freedoms only for as long as MEN (Ya that includes women) keep working to keep it going.
Just because the founders where fairly intelligent about some things, that does not stop them from having their own personal delusions about others.

Pinky said...

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Brian, have you ever heard the term, digging for strawberries?
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Your homily reminds me of that.
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Mark in Spokane said...

Well, Brian. I agree with you, for what it's worth!

In the American scheme of government, rights do not come from the government. As John F. Kennedy said, they come from "the hand of Almighty God." While there were a few dissenters on this position in the Founding period (James Iredell comes to mind), I think that on that point both the Founders in their own views and in the public understanding of the Declaration were fairly clear.

Now, the Founders may have been wrong. And the American political tradition may be wrong. But that's a normative discussion, not a descriptive one.

bpabbott said...

Re: "[It's] a normative discussion, not a descriptive one."

I agree. We can disagree on whether or not God exists, but there should be no disagreement that our Nation's ethos is "that all men are created equal, [and] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights".

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think "normative" holds, but I'm interested in what you guys think.


Couched in terms expressive of requirements or standards. A normative epistemology determines how you ought to conduct your cognitive life; a descriptive one only describes how people in fact do so.

"Normative is the ideal, the opposite of "empirical." Which is also why I'm comfortable with "descriptive" for the "Christian-y-ness" of the Founding era; with the zillions of sects and beliefs, there was no "normative" Christianity to make much sense of. The "Frazer" method of determining "normative" works if you accept it---I just happen to set the bar much lower sociologically, the Bible and a special cosmic role for Jesus. But theologically, that doesn't hold very well either.

Tom Van Dyke said...

And via John Fea, a left-leaning group avoiding "under God" in the Gettysburg Address

http://www.philipvickersfithian.com/2010/09/more-on-lincoln-gettysburg-address-and.html

I'd decided to not do a post on it because I don't like the partisan stuff here, but theirs and the president's omissions are puzzling.

Mark Boggs said...

When I read the quote, I'm intrigued that instead of Jefferson saying,

Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, that these liberties are the gift of God?"

he seems to be more concerned about removing the conviction in the minds of people that those liberties are the gift of God.

And I'm certainly not implying some sort of covert motivations on Jefferson's part, as those of you who run this place have fairly well fleshed out Jefferson's religious views, but I'm wondering if his intent was not to emphasize the importance of his belief that God gives us these rights as much as he is emphasizing the importance of "the conviction in people's minds" that God gives us these rights.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Mark, the "conviction" thing jumped out at me, too.

I did run across this from TJ:

"We do not claim these under the charters of kings or legislators, but under the King of kings." --Thomas Jefferson to John Manners, 1817

He appears to associate himself with that "conviction" here.

dunnettreader said...

@ Mark Boggs -- You've hit on what I think is one of the keys to Jefferson. He's more concerned with what set of core beliefs are necessary for a healthy, well-ordered society than the truth-claims of specific dogma. So he doesn't think theological debates over such issues as Christology or soteriology are particularly important.

But because Jefferson thinks in natural law terms, he accepts that there is (1) a law-giver (that is, the Creator) who established a natural order according to which Man is obliged (because it's a law) to orient his behavior and (2) some sort of rewards and punishments for fulfilling or failing to fulfill those obligations. So from a functionalist, or instrumentalist standpoint, it's important that whatever religion "the people" believe in teaches that there is a Creator who established the law of nature which we must all obey. And it's that law-giver who is the source of our "natural rights" (the flip-side of "natural duties" in the "natural law").

As for Jefferson's personal beliefs, as far as I've been able to tell, he doesn't put much emphasis on the theological specifics which define (1) the attributes of the law-giver and (2) how a system of rewards and punishments works. He personally doesn't seem to believe in an active Providence that hands out rewards and punishments in this life, so one assumes he belives in some sort of after-death accounting and judgment when the rewards and punishments are handed out - but that's all so speculative, and he is personally opposed to speculative theology, that I doubt he has a position on what happens after death in anything other than the vaguest sense.

He does, however, believe in a Creator. Just not one that most Christians would recognize.

dunnettreader said...

Re the substance of the original post, the suggestion seems to be that one needs "endowed by the Creator" in the DOI for the claim of inalienable rights to work. Although it's expressed in natural law rather than common law terms, which by definition assumes a super-natural law-giver not a human-in-history law-giver, the "rights" are simply a claim regarding what reason has derived from studying human nature. (That's one of the things that's so Lockean about the DOI - empiricism, not revelation, is the common source of our shared knowledge about human rights.)

Recall that Jefferson thinks that pagan philosophers could be every bit as "moral" as Christians. It doesn't require a deity to have granted "rights" in order to make them essential to the moral order and what it means to be human. The same principles could be expressed in language other than "natural rights" - e.g. mutuality of autonomy and dignity. Or go back to Aristotle's ethics (leaving out the slavery bit, of course).

The only thing that the appeal to a Creator in the DOI really does is reinforce rhetorically the universality of the claim being made by the American rebels, which is based on their understanding of the nature of Man as both an individual and a social being. Also, by appealing to a "legal" claim of universal rights granted by a higher power than George III, the DOI deftly avoids getting lost in the legalistic thickets of just what are the property rights of the colonists, how do the rights of colonists relate to the "liberties of the English people" from the Ancient Constitution (or from the 1689 Bill of Rights or wherever), what exactly are the legal relations between King and colonists, between the imperial Parliament and colonial assemblies, etc.

An objection to not including "the Creator", of course, is "well, if we've got rights, logically those rights had to come from somewhere and they sure didn't come from George III" Fine. That's why Jefferson appeals to "natural law".

But "natural law" implies absolutely nothing about the attributes of a law-giver or Creator or first-mover. It's certainly not a Christianity-specific Creator. In fact, it's so non-specific that anyone other than a rabid, actively Creator-denying atheist can sign on to it. And a rabid, actively Creator-denying atheist can just read it metaphorically as an affirmation of belief of what it means to be human.

So I'm not sure what the brouhaha is supposed to be about. That, surprise, surprise Obama isn't a closet socialist Muslim about to impose Sharia on us (because a Muslim, socialist or not, certainly believes in a Creator)? Is the suggestion instead that he's a closet atheistic secular humanist who's going to steal our God-given rights away from us when we're not paying close attention? Or, on second thought, maybe it's our bodily fluids he's after.

Tom Van Dyke said...

..however, the congress did add "with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence."

Providence is an attribute. Jefferson's private mind gets a bit too much focus; although he figures in, he is not The Founding, or the Founders.

As for the "American mind" that Jefferson claimed he was giving voice to, it may not have been strictly Lockean:

James Otis wrote in 1764:

"Government is founded not on force, as was the theory of Hobbes; nor on compact, as was the theory of Locke and of the revolution of 1688; nor on property, as was the assertion of Harrington. It springs from the necessities of our nature, and has an everlasting foundation in the unchangeable will of God."

I'm not sure the claim to rights is empirical. Certainly Jefferson's "King of kings" quote [above] is normative. I do not think "a rabid, actively Creator-denying atheist" can quite get behind that, or "the laws of nature and nature's God.

A solid argument, though, Mary, thank you. I do agree with your characterization of Jefferson's personal beliefs, although I do not lend them primary importance.

bpabbott said...

Tom, thanks for the clarification on normative/descriptive. I had not inferred the meaning of normative correctly. You are also correct, that I was making an observation, or ... implying an empirical perspective.

Jason_Pappas said...
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Jason_Pappas said...

"But that's a normative discussion, not a descriptive one."

I'm not sure exactly what you guys mean by this but I wouldn't sign on to it so fast. Remember the phrase "unalienable rights" implies that they can't be taken away. The very next sentence says "That to secure these rights" implies that they can be violated.

Men have these rights by their nature, "endowed by their Creator." This statement is a descriptive statement. No action is necessary by men to give you these rights. As Locke would say you have these rights "in a state of nature" before government is establish among men. A right is, in part, a just claim. A natural right is a just claim by your nature as a human being. But not all just claims are respected by others.

It's securing these rights that requires normative guidelines for a proper government. Government is created by convention ... in our case as Constitutional Convention. Rights are recognized and thus secured by a proper human institution.

Now if you mean that it is not descriptively true that a particular government (like ours) doesn't recognize or secure our rights, you'd have little argument from me.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

It seems to me that affirming a "creator", in the Christian sense does not only lead to affirming a "norm", but also, gives leaders the "right" to defend "human rights" under God.

I just don't see that defending rights as "under God" really matters, because what really matters in the real lives of people is political liberty. And political liberty is about real men in leadership, that has nothing to do with "spiritual" leadership.

"Roman emperoror" types (dictators) of leadership are the only ones who would think otherwise. Then, the "Christian" could be given the line to submit to authority (Romans 13) or be content with their "lot in life" as "providentially" defined (Phil.), or to submit to the Pope, as God's representative on earth.

Leaders cannot appeal to God, when the populace doesn't believe in one, as was recently illustrated in Britian when the Pope went to visit. And a lack of authority would be deadly for those that might want to impose their wishes/views to the detetriment of those under their authority. One has to be able to trust their leaders. And trust is not to be blind, but earned. Some people will never respect "spiritual leadership", as that kind of leadership is only based on speculative "sacred" texts, revelations/visions or hierarchal authority that is "produced" by men. Leadership should respect the intelligence of those under them. They might not be as educated, but they certainly have an opinion. If there is a reasonable explaination to change a policy, then inform the public. Don't change policy without informing the voting public or you will bring about the response we see in the "tea party" movement.

When one lives in a free society, personal choice defines a given life. Choice is an important value, in fact, it defines a "free society". Otherwise, we have a paternalistic government that "takes over" choice and defines the lives of its subjects, who are nothing more than slaves of the State. And this is oppressive tyranny.

Pinky said...

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Digging for strawberries.
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President Obama's talk was NOT about the Creator; but, it was about the American People and of what makes us "so unique".
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Spinning the comments he made to make it all about the Creator is a crock and does nothing but obfuscate reality.
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Strawberries grow above ground.
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Angie Van De Merwe said...

Another important issue that is not directly being addressed is the issue of "globalization of government".

Many are speculating because of recent policies and actions of our government, that our national boundaries, and identity is unimportant. Human rights trumps national identity. But, at what costs, and how are we to suppose that those that have such extreme cultural standards will not limit what America regards as their very identity? Or that redistributing the wealth is underming the basic value of private property and the right of individuals to protect that property? (Of course, if one can appeal to God, then people "have no rights"...other than what is passively recieved...)

Pinky said...

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"Globalization of government"?
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Angie Van De Merwe said...

What I meant was a "one world government'. A one world government would be a larger beauracracy then our presnet government.

Of course, there does have to be international laws which protect treaties and business dealings, but I am not well-informed concerning international trade/business. And this is the real issue/problem, as money does drive politics/policy. I don't believe that money driving politics was the "ideal" of our Founders, as moeny protects the interests of "special interests", instead of insuring a government "by and for the people". Small businesses, or start up companies then have a hard time competing, as all 'power" is given to the larger comapnies.
Monopolies do not protect prices through competition. And innovation is limited by such monopolies and "proven" reputation. It is hard to create a "market" when people have limited resources or prejidice against innovative ideas, or products.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Just because money can corrupt the basis of our moral foundations, does not mean that religious ideologues are better informers of "democratic or republican ideals"....

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I do not know how we are to correct what has become a problem in our government, corruption.

On one hand, if one allows the "free market" without any regulation, then one has to depend on good character to protect all interests involved.

On the other hand, if government intervenes to protect or prevent "market outcomes", then we no longer have a free market economy. And that means that government determines what and how monies will be made and distributed, which means government determines, instead of the consumer. Where will the government determine what is to be the "moral" limitation upon the market? Is science determines what drives the market, we still have competing "needs". And we see how our government has limited our own oil drilling in the Gulf for the sake of the "globe". But, Brazil and Mexico has been given monies and are allowed to drill for oil. This is the "moral" mandate, of redistributing wealth...

jimmiraybob said...

Angie - "Science understands that the cosmos was not created, but came about by evolution. Evolution is what is being standardized in our public schools, and underwrites many of the academic disciplines."

It's funny, in a tragic sense, how "evolution" has come about as a menacing catch-all phrase with some people equating evolution with evil so as to define a group or ideology that must be destroyed. Evolution, in science, has a very specific meaning in biology dealing with genetic changes in populations over time. From a scientific perspective, the cosmos that we can observe came about in a "big bang" event at about 14 billion years ago, energy gave way to material entities (atoms, molecules), matter condensed into stars and planets and galaxies, life arose on at least one planet from materials created within the stars (abiogenesis), and living organisms (biology), starting about 4.3-4.5 billion years ago, were since changed by evolutionary processes.

I assume by evolution you mean naturalistic (non-supernatural) processes which is a fundamental principle of the scientific method. And it's true that the naturalistic principle, versus the supernatural idea of agency by unseen benevolent or malevolent beings, does underlie much of modern thinking. Although to be fair there are scientists that operate professionally within a naturalistic scientific framework that also profess a religious faith that posits supernatural agency.

In the everyday world of having to evaluate where to put trash dumps, how to build nuclear reactors, how to cure and prevent disease, and how to develop better mouse traps the naturalistic approach has had great success, which is why it is emphasized in educational settings.

As to Brian's post, I agree that there's little evidence to suggest that Obama was intentional in his omission - he has used an abundance of religious imagery language in the past and I'm sure he will in the future. If, on the other hand it was intentional, perhaps it could be that he doesn't want to have to answer the obvious questions that would be directed his way as to who the creator is.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

jimmyraybob,
I think it is insincere to hold to "two views" of reality. Reality has to be coherent, in some way, otherwise, we cannot live within a rational 'universe".

Therefore, I have been seeking to understand my own "ideals"/values (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) and how that looks (coherency) in the real world (pragmatic).

I don't think an appeal to "god" does anything to practically address the "real world", unless one want to be deceptive and hold two views. I respect the atheist for their honest and forth-right assessment of "facts", as they know it now.

So, I didn't mean my response as a criticism of what happened. I was just trying to explain what most would know anyway.

Pinky said...

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it could be that [the president] doesn't want to have to answer the obvious questions that would be directed his way as to who the creator is.
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heh heh, I think you got it straight, Jimmiray.
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I picked up this quote at this site.

"... Heidegger and Strauss begin their works with a sense of impending crisis or catastrophe. Heidegger spoke ominously about a 'darkening of the world' with its attendant 'enfeeblement of the spirit,' while Strauss spoke about a 'crisis of the West' or a 'crisis of our time' which he identifies with an encroaching nihilism. How are we to understand these claims?"
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Serious? Couldn't we just turn on the t-v to see it coming down on us like those gigantic clouds of debris came roaring down the streets in New York when the Trade Center buildings were collapsing.
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There seems to be a strong force that wants nihilism to be the tour de force.
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Maybe one of the political parties should change its mascot from an elephant to a wooden horse?
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Very interesting Steven Smith piece, Pinky.

Strauss shares Heidegger's criticism of modernity as the "crisis of the West," but keep in mind Smith's assertion [I agree] that Strauss' life's work is directed at a refutation of Heidegger, who was after all, a Nazi.
__________

As for the rest of the discussion, "normative" is IDEAL. "Unalienable rights" are by nature normative. A "contract theory" of rights, on the other hand, would be empirical: rights are whatever the people negotiate with their government, and as times and circumstances change, quite alienable.

Jason_Pappas said...

Normative is prescriptive as opposed to descriptive. The FF didn’t see a dichotomy between an “is” and an “ought.” Thus, the descriptive statement “you have a right” implies a normative prohibition on others not to violate that right. This is prior to government.

Whether rights are stipulated (by man or God) or discovered is another question. Discovered laws, in physics or human affairs, are inherently unalienable. Stipulated laws depend on the will of the law giver. Natural laws, regardless of the theory of its origin, are unalienable.

As I see it there are two statements in the Declaration. "We hold these truths ..." "That to secure these rights ..." The second statement says the government's purpose is to secure the unalienable rights mentioned in the first. It doesn't say the rights are created by government; on the contrary it says they are unalienable. It does say that they aren't secured. If they can't be sundered what isnt' secure? Obviously they can be violated. You can have a right and it can still be violated.

Of course, we can move beyond the Declaration. But those two coupled statements are mightly powerful as they stand. No?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes. But the crisis of modernity, of liberalism, is not Strauss' fault. He cannot "discover" unalienable rights in classical philosophy, and modern liberalism, absent an appeal to God or natural law, can only say they are "non-foundational."

http://www.bsos.umd.edu/gvpt/lpbr/subpages/reviews/faulkner-shell0809.htm

The problem is, without foundation, it's tough to discover what rights actually exist. [If any.]

It's quite a mess.

Pinky said...

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Lead paragraph on psge 111 under the heading of "The Crisis of Contemporary Liberalism?.
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Sorry, Phil, I don't have Smith's book. Although I hope it's making what I've said about Strauss over the years look good.

Google book preview here. But pls tell what's on p.110, not included in the preview.

It's funny, over at Jon Rowe's other blog, I brought up Heidegger-the-Nazi. They went apespit, of course. As usual, it wasn't worth the bother to attempt to get through the noise. Fortunately, I learned something, despite their best efforts.

Habermas on Heidegger's Nazism.

Pinky said...

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Yes, Tom, Smith's book is much kinder to Strauss than the others I have read. He gives a lot to Strauss.
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We must learn, as a society, how to get along with each other in a much better way. It starts, I think, with listening to what the "other" has to say.
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