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.”)