Inalienable Rights?

You may have heard about some remarks by Rep. John Fleming (R-LA), who told a Republican women’s club that the November elections are a choice between Christianity and godlessness. Here’s what he said:

We are either going to go down the socialist road and become like western Europe and create, I guess really a godless society, an atheist society. Or we’re going to continue down the other pathway where we believe in freedom of speech, individual liberties and that we remain a Christian nation. So we’re going to have to win that battle, we’re going to have to solve that argument before we can once again reach across and work together on things.

You can find a similar statement on Rep. Fleming’s website, on a page headlined “America’s Religious Heritage and Religious Freedom” (emphasis added; pay close attention to how he uses the words “rights” and “freedom”):

The American people, in the vast majority, are a profoundly religious people. We must never allow the noisy liberal minority and radical groups like the ACLU to impose their secular vision on the majority. We must resist the oppression of religious liberty.

We must never allow the Liberal, anti-God, anti-religious freedom minority to remove the words Under God from the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. We must never allow them to abolish our National Motto: In God We Trust.

The Ten Commandments are the very foundation of the American system of law and justice. I will vigorously defend the rights to display the Ten Commandments in our schools, city halls, courthouses, and other public venues. He will stand up for the right of public officials to acknowledge God.

I support the right of students to pray in our schools. I support the rights of students, parents, teachers, and members of the community to pray at graduation ceremonies and school sports events.

Rep. Fleming is, of course, is not just revising history (the Ten Commandments are not the “very foundation of the American system of law and justice,” for example); he is turning the founder’s concept of “rights” on its head. The guys who wrote the Constitution added the Bill of Rights as limitations on government so that government cannot deprive individual citizens of their rights. Among their concerns was that a religious faction might gain control of government and use government to force their beliefs and practices on everyone. As James Madison wrote in Federalist #10:

If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.

Madison goes on to say that there are two ways to prevent a majority faction from tyrannizing a minority. One way is to somehow prevent people from forming passionate opinions and interests that cause them to form factions. The other is to prevent the effects of factions, depriving them of the means to tyrannize the minority. And the eventual remedy was the Bill of Rights, which lists stuff that government may not do even if a majority wants to do it.

In other words, putting limits on the power of government is the chief means to prevent large factions from seizing the means to tyrannize everyone else. In the case of religion, government may not interfere with everyone’s free exercise of religion, which is the same thing as saying a majority religious faction may not use government to interfere with other peoples’ free exercise of religion. (See also Jonathan Turley, “James Madison and the Mujahedeen.”)

But “rights” according to Rep. Fleming is the right of the majority faction to maintain tribal dominance by erecting its totems in government buildings (the Ten Commandments in courthouses) and to force everyone to participate in its religious rituals (prayers at graduation ceremonies and football games).

I think too many Americans have no idea what “rights” are. They throw the word around a lot, but they have no idea what it means. As in the Park51 controversy, even people who pay lip service to the rights of a Sufi congregation to build an Islamic center on their own property seem to think that others have a “right” to stop them by force, either legal or physical. In this context, “right” seems to mean “power.”

See also the last part of Fleming’s web page:

The Constitution gives Congress the authority to limit the jurisdiction of federal judges. We must stop radical judges from legislating from the bench, destroying revered American religious traditions and religious symbols that have been part of American life for 230 years.

Limit the jurisdiction of federal judges? The Constitution gave Congress the authority to establish federal courts inferior to the Supreme Court, but it doesn’t give Congress the power to take authority away from the courts. Again, there’s much waving around of the Constitution without actually understanding it. (See “Truth and Totems.”)

14 thoughts on “Inalienable Rights?

  1. Dead-on from beginning to — well, I can’t agree that the last bit is as clearly true as the rest.

    “In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.” Article III, section 2.

    So the legislature can limit the scope of the Supreme Court’s appellate powers, and there’s no guidance here on why or subject to what limitations. Could have been useful to the Confederate party in the 1950s-60s if they’d been able to muster the votes: Just make up a condition that happens to rule out Supreme Court appeals on segregation questions.

    But still, as you say, there’s no power to limit the federal courts in general.

  2. What I find fascinating is that most politicians are lawyers, so they went to law school.
    Well what the f**k are they teaching them there? How do they not know the most basic aspects of constitutional law and rights?
    Perhaps we need to test politicians on constitutional knowledge. After all, their job is to write laws in Congress. They should understand the relationship between what they do, the Constitution they swore to uphold, and the courts that decide on the legality of the laws.
    Or, do they know and use religion to sell themselves to the rubes? Well, I guess if you have no ideas about how to run a country to sell the voters, you sell them God, gays, and guns.*

    *Don’t worry, the gays will stay on the radar screen for a long time yet. Self-hating conservatives need them to project their sexual frustrations and fears on.

  3. Gulag, you suppose maybe Fleming went to Oral Roberts University Law School (or similar)? I may be wrong, but I believe Michele Bachmann is trained in the “law,” as well. Most right-wing “Christian” colleges give degrees in their version of the law. Of course, they teach that “religious freedom” means their right to force their religion on everyone else.

    Law degree doesn’t automatically = sane, alas. And fundie Christian almost always = nuttier than a Snickers bar.

  4. joan,
    You’re right. I forgot about all of the Liberty U. law graduates (still in?) in the Justice Dept. YIKES!!!

  5. What I want to know is where did they learn American History?

    It’s amazing to me how many of these guys point reverently to an America that didn’t exist, and claim to be defending or restoring founding principles that never were.

    It’s particularly scary now that charlatans like Glenn Beck are convincing people that they’ve “studied” at a “university” and therefore have even more reason to claim that they know things that, in objective reality, just aren’t so. Watching these people develop a subculture that actively rewrites history to serve their own ends is like watching a real-life version of Orwell’s 1984.

  6. The “oppression of religious liberty”? Was he saying that liberty is oppressed, or that liberty is oppression?

    Oh, I get it, his complaint is that he is being denied the right to deny rights to others.

    Also; “anti-religious freedom minority”? Does he mean a minority against religious freedom? (He should look in the mirror.) Or a ‘freedom minority’ that’s anti-religious?

  7. Its so tricky with those words. You can really say them and each person is going to define them slightly differently. Who was it that said, “Your freedom ends where my nose begins”? I am one who thinks these people simply have lost track of right and wrong in the fox news and talk radio bubble worlds they live in. The people exploiting them either actually believe what they are saying or just realize they are now fox news rubes who are easily exploited.

  8. I really really really want to ask one of these yutzes exactly how the 10 commandments fit into the US legal framework. How does a prohibition against graven images have anything to do with anything? Argh! It’s not just the stupidity. It’s the lack of pushback against the stupidity.

  9. “Limit the jurisdiction of federal judges? The Constitution gave Congress the authority to establish federal courts inferior to the Supreme Court, but it doesn’t give Congress the power to take authority away from the courts.”

    Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on the sanity of the SCOTUS), the Constitution DOES give Congress/President the ability to regulate the appellate court system:

    ARTICLE III, Section 2
    In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.

    Emphasis added. Part of the separation of powers – the Congress and President CAN gang up on an “unruly” Court appellate process. Note they have no such ability WRT appointed government officials or interstate conflicts.

    THAT is why it would be very dangerous to EVER place our government squarely in the hands of Republicans or any other radical group intent on destroying our way of life.

  10. What a silly man Mr. Fleming is. I would like him to stand up in front of the house of representatives, and declare to them that he would not be able to work with him untill they came to believe the things the way he does. They would fall out of their chairs laughing at him.

  11. I recently mentioned something in regards to our local city govt. getting “IN GOD WE TRUST” put in the city logo, and the reason the “gentleman” wanted it there was anti abortion, anti gay, anti “liberal” and anti marajuana.
    The dude is a fucking nut, but he is a climber, and will surely gain ground with his new ordinance. It is impossible to argue the point regarding “IN GOD WE TRUST”; any even slightly religious person would find no fault with it, and as a non believer, I really don’t dislike it, but the reason behind it is anything BUT Christian.
    It is really disturbing to see these “Momma Grizzlies”,Becker-heads, and just mean spirtied jackwads, breying and whinning about wanting “their Government” back.
    I’d just love to debate these idiots in a public forum.I think I’ll get busy on the local Govt scene………..

  12. I’d just love to debate these idiots in a public forum.

    erinyes.. I’ve been accused of being “a double minded man… unstable in all his ways”* that’s the biblical equivalent of “he was for it, before he was against it”, The point is that no matter what you say, it won’t be heard because whatever you say will be dismissed as foolishness. If you’re godless,( no Jesus) nothing you can say can penetrate the tightly closed Christian mind to impart any sort of reason.

    * James 1:8

  13. You’re right, Swami, but I love to indulge in a few fantasies.
    Any counter to foolishness and pettyness must be done with humor and a bit of humility.

Comments are closed.