In his recent National Affairs essay, “Religion and the American Public,” George Will writes: “I approach the question of religion and American life from the vantage point of an expanding minority,” namely, Americans with no religious affiliation, “a cohort that the Pew public-opinion surveys call the ‘nones.’”
Will’s essay is long and rich, and much could be said about it, but we want to focus on the significance of Will’s lack of religious affiliation, and on a deficiency in his thinking about rights.
Will, a major conservative thinker, has, in this essay, to some extent broken ties with religious conservatism. Granted, denying affiliation with a religion is not the same as rejecting religion, but it is deeply significant—especially for a prominent and highly celebrated conservative journalist.
Will discusses the American founders’ thoughts on religion, noting that some, such as Benjamin Franklin, were Deists who relegated the “creator” to the status of “a rich aunt in Australia: benevolent, distant, and infrequently heard from.” George Washington, notes Will, refused to kneel for prayer; the “longer John Adams lived, the shorter grew his creed”; and Thomas Jefferson endorsed a “wall of separation” between church and state.
Will then moves to the main concern of his essay: the relationship of religion to the American way—that is, to government based on rights. Here, Will appears further at odds with conservative tradition. “I do not think the idea of natural rights requires a religious foundation,” he writes. “The American founding owed much more to John Locke than to Jesus.” He even says explicitly that neither successful self-government nor “a government with clear limits defined by the natural rights of the governed” requires religion. For these, writes Will, “religion is helpful and important but not quite essential.”
That last point is the essence of Will’s position. He holds that although religion is not the keystone of American liberty, it does serve as a significant brace. In his words, “It is . . . indubitably the case that natural rights are especially firmly grounded when they are grounded in religious doctrine.”
It is great to see a conservative acknowledge that religion is not essential to the existence or defense of rights. But why does Will maintain that religion is even “helpful” or “important” to the cause? Why is that "indubitably the case"? What exactly does religion supply that Will regards as so crucial as to warrant condoning ideas that he believes to be false? How could false ideas support true ones? What are we to make of the countless instances of religious scriptures calling for or permitting the violation of rights? And how are we to deal with religionists who have “faith” that they are divinely justified in violating rights?
Unfortunately, Will does not raise, let alone address, any such questions. If he did, he would eventually (if not quickly) see that religion is not only nonessential and unhelpful and unimportant to rights and liberty, but also inimical to them.
Rights, as the American philosopher Ayn Rand discovered and elucidated, are not “self-evident truths” (as Will and some founders claim); nor are they God-given truths (as many conservatives and some founders claim); nor are they government-given permissions or myths (as leftists and today’s so-called “liberals” claim). Rather, rights are recognitions of certain factual requirements of human life and prosperity on earth. As Rand put it:
“Rights” are a moral concept—the concept that provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individual’s actions to the principles guiding his relationship with others—the concept that preserves and protects individual morality in a social context—the link between the moral code of a man and the legal code of a society, between ethics and politics. Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law. . . .
A “right” is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action—which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. (Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)
Rand’s secular, observation-based derivation of the principle of rights involves a logical hierarchy of moral, epistemological, and metaphysical facts; and it is impossible to spell out in a brief blog post. But the essence of her argument is this: Because man’s only means of knowledge is reason (i.e., the use of observation and logic)—and because man must therefore use his rational judgment to discover truths, establish principles, and guide his actions in order to live and prosper—man morally must be left free to act on his judgment so that he can live and prosper. These and related facts, Rand observed, give rise to the need of a principle to protect people from the one thing that can stop them from acting on their judgment: physical force. That principle is the principle of rights: the truth that every individual has a moral prerogative to act on his own judgment for his own sake so long as he does not violate the same rights of others.
Rand’s approach to rights is not faith-based, nor feeling-based, but fact-based. It is based on the observably and historically clear facts concerning man’s need of freedom in order to live and prosper.
If Will and other conservatives want to discover the objective, secular source and nature of rights, they would do well to study Ayn Rand’s theory of rights. Armed with Rand’s observationally true theory, they could proceed to apply it consistently and fruitfully toward the restoration of the land of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
- Ayn Rand’s Theory of Rights
- The American Right, the Purpose of Government, and the Future of Liberty
Creative Commons Image: Keith Allison