John Bennison Words and Ways | Unalienable Rights and the Question of a “Christian” Conscience

Unalienable Rights and the Question of a “Christian” Conscience

A Commentary for the Annual Observance of Independence Day, 2013

An artist’s stylized retrospective of Franklin, Adams and Jefferson “Writing the Declaration of Independence 1776” – oil on canvas, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930)

An artist’s stylized retrospective of Franklin, Adams and Jefferson “Writing the Declaration of Independence 1776” – oil on canvas, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930)

[A pdf copy to print and/or read is here.]


“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”


These grand words are etched in the American consciousness, and serve as a preamble of sorts to the Constitution’s subsequent ideal goal of “a more perfect union.”  With the recent split Supreme Court decisions over voting rights and marriage equality, along with and passage of an immigration reform bill in the Senate that naysayers declare is DOA in the House of Representatives, it would appear that while progress has been made, we clearly remain a work in progress, as well.

The Continental Congress that convened in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, to ratify the Declaration of Independence consisted entirely of gentrified white male landowners, who certainly had their own particular ideas of what those rights to life, liberty and happiness consisted.  And it probably would not have included the sheer joy and bliss expressed on the faces of same-sex couples who lined up in front of San Francisco City Hall the last few days to be legally married.

Every American since this grand experiment in democracy was first envisioned has probably come up with one’s own interpretation.  The recent cover story of one news weekly [July 8th issue of Time magazine] explored how human beings – and especially Americans — seem equipped with the pursuit-of-happiness impulse by rounding up the usual suspects: money, status, kinship, health and longevity. At the same time recent polls indicate debt-ridden Ireland remains one of the cheeriest places on the planet, Canadians score significantly higher than Americans on the work/life balance satisfaction scale, and there are three times more happy people as unhappy people in war-torn Afghanistan. Here at home — though we claim to share the same God-given rights — my American dream in the pursuit of happiness may not, in point of fact, look much like any of those others; let alone that of Ben Franklin’s, John Adams’, Thomas Jefferson, or yours in reality.

Our Founding Fathers are regarded as visionaries, and men of keen insight and integrity; despite the fact we would find their attitudes then towards certain segments of our compatriots today downright abhorrent.  If pressed and asked what they meant that all men were created equal, clearly women, Native Americans, and “non-free men” (slaves) were not included.

Article I, Section 2.3 of our Constitution once declared slaves equal to 3/5 of a person. It was not a question of racial inequality or any moral laxity when it came to the question of human trafficking; but rather a compromise between the States for the purposes of taxation and representation when it came to the popular vote and what would have been regarded as the disproportionate population of the South if slaves were counted as being fully human.  So much for the kind of deal-making of which the vast majority of Americans believe a dysfunction Congress today is incapable!

What in the world were our Founding Fathers thinking (or not thinking), one might ask? What of their human conscience? Isn’t that nagging moral voice in the back of our heads something inseparable from our fundamental human nature, with which we are endowed by our Creator as well? With rights come responsibilities to act in good conscience, and for the common good as well, right?

From the outset, our Declaration of Independence from British rule included the assertion that there is something inherent in either natural law or divine providence that bestows upon every human being certain rights from which one ought not be alienated; rights that can only be denied us by some opposing human force and construct, “…to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them …” is the way our Declaration of Independence puts it in that document’s very first sentence.

For the American colonies in 1776, those “corrupted powers of the earth” consisted of British rule, taxation without representation and King George III.  Nowadays, there are Americans who consider the federal government to be tyrannical in its overreach, in one way or another. So-called radicals — liberal or conservative — share this common gripe. There are those who would always defend personal rights and freedoms at the expense of what may be the common good, and vice-versa.

But for those harboring such sentiments, our Constitution provides for such freedom of speech and press, peaceful protest and lawful dissent. And, if the exercise of one’s conscience dictates one act outside the bounds of such constitutionally protected rights, we have a legal process to address that too.  Corporal Manning sitting in a military stockade, and now fugitive Edward Snowdon evading extradition, come to mind.

As we prepare to celebrate our Independence Day holiday this year the fireworks have been set off a little early with the debate over the intelligence surveillance practices of the so-called Patriot Act by a government that was established of, by and for the people.  Call them heroes or traitors, whistleblowers or hack-tivists, there are also a growing number of anti-authoritarian tech geeks who claim to be motivated less by notoriety than a certain principled conscience to which they claim to have pledged a higher allegiance.

Call them heroes or traitors, whistleblowers or hack-tivists, there are also a growing number of anti-authoritarian tech geeks who claim to be motivated less by notoriety than a certain principled conscience to which they claim to have pledged a higher allegiance.

So, what is the nature of “natural” or “divinely-bestowed” rights? What of human conscience, earthly authority, and more? And – for those of us who might consider ourselves both a red-blooded American and Christian of one sort or other — what might constitute a “Christian” conscience, based on a Jesus life-ethic?

Human Conscience & Telling Secrets

It seems we clearly have something innate within the human spirit that calls to us and holds us accountable for our actions.   We are sometimes driven, even compelled, to externalize that uneasy companion from within; to integrate and reconcile those parts of ourselves that are at odds with one’s self.

There is the classic cartoon character portraying a devil sitting on one shoulder and an angel on the other, both whispering in our ear our darkest secrets we know all too well; and cajoling us to subsequently match our thoughts with our actions and rise to the “nature of our better angels.”  Otherwise, simply claiming “the devil made me do it,” usually doesn’t get us very far. For some people, the colloquial expression to “prick” one’s conscience often connotes a sense of guilt and regret.  In fact, an entire religious enterprise is often constructed based on the assumption we’ve all got a guilty conscience that needs to be expunged by authorized professionals on a regular basis.

As one such professional, I’ve been on both sides of that confessional, and I’ll tell you a well-known secret. There’s nothing new under the sun, to quote Ecclesiastes (1:9).  The other half of the verse is usually left off, but worth quoting nonetheless: “What has been will be again,
 what has been done will be done again.”

Lots of folks have entrusted me with their biggest secrets, and I have never broken the sacred seal of the confessional. Someone once asked me if that wasn’t tough to do, but actually it’s not that hard. After awhile our secrets aren’t all that different. What’s important isn’t the secret itself, but the conscience of the penitent that has led them to spill their guts in the first place.  The classic “absolution and remission” that gets pronounced is a foregone conclusion. Someone’s conscience blows the whistle on themselves, after which they hear the echoing refrain once again, “Now there is rejoicing, for once you were lost and are found, you were dead, and are alive again.”


Keeping Secrets

I thought about the importance of keeping secrets or disclosing secrets with the uproar of an American who leaked classified intelligence information that could prove harmful to national security in general, and to some covert operatives whose lives depend on subterfuge and essentially living a double life. It is no secret that the NSA and other intelligence agencies want to know our enemies secrets; and they don’t want our enemies to know how we know what we know, but can’t tell the American people because it’s a secret.  It’s all a serious game of cat and mouse.

But add to that the fairly steady stream of leaks that seem to occur, and the old wive’s adage “it’ll all come out in the wash,” seems applicable. One might even quote from the three synoptic gospels who all make use of the variation, “for there is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known,” and, the follow-up, “What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.” (Mt. 10:26-27)  We seem to have trouble keeping our mouth shut sometimes; but exactly what we refuse to keep secret may be what’s important.

Polls seem to indicate the majority of Americans are willing to give up some of our rights to privacy, in exchange for having a better chance at our versions of life, liberty and the pursuit …  Perhaps where it gets messy isn’t so much having the government know how boring and benign the emails and phone calls I make really are; but rather what the government decides to do with the information it collects. It could thwart other’s secret plans, target anyone deemed an enemy combatant, and sometimes inflict unintentional but unavoidable collateral damage in the process.  But all in all, it seems worthwhile remembering the question of national intelligence may be as much about the matter of our moral conscience as it is strategic defense.

 The question of national intelligence may be as much about the matter of our moral conscience as it is strategic defense.


 A Godless Conscience

Margaret Doughty is an avowed atheist who also happens to be a pacifist with personal moral convictions, borne of her conscience. Originally from England, she’s one of those countless aliens who want to become a U.S. citizen. She recently applied for naturalization, but with one proviso. Where the oath of citizenship requires her willingness to “bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law,” she claims she cannot in good conscience take such an oath. She has subsequently requested conscientious objector status, which has been denied under the guidelines established by our government; that is, that it must be a pre-established, previously-recognized religiously-held belief.

Those of us of draft age who grew up in the Sixties — when Daniel Ellsberg was spilling the beans about our government’s duplicitous cover-up of the other, secret war in Southeast Asia in Laos and Cambodia — knew all about the requirements for CO status, including one’s affiliation with a recognized religious organization that practiced pacifism as a central tenet of belief . Being a born-and-bred Episcopalian myself wasn’t going to hack it.  We had aligned ourselves with the halls of wealth, power and influence since that faithful Anglican churchman, George Washington, had led his rag-tag army of musket-toting American patriots across the Delaware. One had to be a Quaker, or a Mennonite, or such, prior to having one’s moral conscience aroused.  Then as now, Margaret Doughty’s claim of personal conscience alone would prove insufficient as far as our government was concerned.

“I am sure the law would never require a 64 year-old woman like myself to bear arms,” she said in a written statement. “But if I am required to answer this question, I cannot lie. I must be honest. The truth is that I would not be willing to bear arms. Since my youth I have had a firm, fixed and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or in the bearing of arms. I deeply and sincerely believe that it is not moral or ethical to take another person’s life, and my lifelong beliefs impose on me a duty of conscience not to contribute to warfare by taking up arms … my beliefs are as strong and deeply held as those who possess traditional religious beliefs and who believe in God … I want to make clear, however, that I am willing to perform work of national importance under civilian direction or to perform noncombatant service … if and when required by the law to do so.”

Apparently unmoved, it was reported the government had informed her she had to join a church, or be denied citizenship. A letter stating her membership, written on church letterhead, would suffice. The American Humanist Association, a non-religious organization advocating on her behalf, has sent around an online petition, seeking support to overturn the decision. It probably wouldn’t surprise any one who knows me if I told you I singed it, adding the following comment:

“I am part of a California 501.c.3 non-profit religious organization that includes in its membership traditional theists, atheists, agnostics, self-professed pagans, pacifists and gun-totin’ Americans willing to fight to defend our nation. If Ms. Doughty ever wants a letter of affiliation to demonstrate to Immigration Services one can be a religious atheist and pacifist – exercising both their right to freedom from religion and her unalienable right of moral conscience — all she need do is ask.”

The government’s dilemma would then only be more difficult; attempting to make a determination based on a religious organization that was neither one, nor the other, but both.

I doubt anything will come of my offer. But I did so, not only in the belief one need not always hold to any particular pre-established religious tenet in order to realize and affirm one’s moral conscience; but that a moral conscience is something with which all people are endowed, requiring us each to be held accountable to that higher authority.

One need not always hold to any particular pre-established religious tenet in order to realize and affirm one’s moral conscience; but that a moral conscience is something with which all people are endowed, requiring us each to be held accountable to that higher authority.

 Remember the old television commercial for Hebrew National frankfurters, which depicted Uncle Sam holding a kosher hot dog and claiming their product far exceeded the minimum amount of beef mandated by the federal government that was required along with non-meat fillers to still be called a hot dog?  Why, it was asked? “Because,” a deep resonant voice boomed as Uncle Sam glanced heavenward, “we have to answer to a higher authority…”

I’m thinking that higher authority actually resides a little closer to where we live our day-to-day lives.  It’s called a conscience.  Call it religious or irreligious, it may not matter. The great 20th century theologian, Paul Tillich said, “Religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of a meaning of our life.” The unalienable nature of a human conscience with which we seem indelibly endowed (and sometimes afflicted, it would seem) points to such ultimate concerns.


A “Christian” Conscience?

There was a time in the formation of the Christian faith tradition when early followers chose persecution and even martyrdom rather than forsake their strongly held convictions that were at odds with the government. They forsook life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and chose instead a form of conscientious objection, shaped by a way of life and death shown them in the Galilean sage to whom they accorded the title Christ.

It was Tertullian, a church leader early in the second century CE, who defied the Roman magistrate Scapula, when the Empire demanded early Jewish-Christians worship Roman gods, along with their Jewish god. He argued that it was “a fundamental human right, a power bestowed by nature, that each person should worship according to his own convictions.”  Note a ring of familiarity to this ancient claim when we turn to our country’s own founding document and its author 1,400 years later.

But in addition, the earliest Christians were also persecuted for their refusal to bear arms. They were essentially considered a subversive threat to national security and consequently early Christianity was essentially outlawed. That is, until the year 312 CE, when the Roman emperor Constantine was about to wage war against one of his rivals for imperial power. In both an omen and a dream he saw a vision ensuring him of victory in the name of Christ. With a quick overnight conversion he ordered a banner emblazoned with the Christian symbol precede his army to victory.  A mere twenty four hours later, he entered Rome triumphant, and soon afterward made Christianity not only legal, but the state religion, subject to the government’s discretion.

Tertullian’s claim to religious freedom as a natural and unalienable right was achieved – sort of. But it would only beg the question, what would subsequently constitute a peculiarly “Christian” conscience that hadn’t been usurped by the State? Even today, our own government reserves the right to determine the limits of its citizen’s conscientious objections.

Tertullian’s claim to religious freedom as a natural and unalienable right was achieved – sort of. But it would only beg the question, what would subsequently constitute a peculiarly “Christian” conscience that hadn’t been usurped by the State? Even today, our own government reserves the right to determine the limits of its citizen’s conscientious objections.

There has been a lot of talk in Christian circles about moving away from static belief systems to which one must ascribe to be assured of some kind of eternal salvation, to something that might be more akin to simply a way of living in the ever-evolving here and now; expressed in the plainest terms of the way Jesus once lived and taught, before all those doctrinal attributes and creedal constructs (such as those Constantine ordered the bishops to compose at Nicea in 325 CE) made law-abiding citizens out of us all. Lost was the subversive voice of Jesus who so often broke all the rules for the sake of conscience.

Jesus — or at least the composite picture we have of this figure, as provided by the earliest gospel traditions — seemed to most clearly exemplify and personify those innate attributes of the human conscience that have consistently found themselves juxtaposed to those other dissonant voices in our heads and hearts that place us at odds with ourselves.  These would include compassion and mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation, neighbor love and its ultimate expression in a commitment to total non-violence, a kind of deliberate generosity that results in a divine expression of distributive justice that serves the common good of humankind and a family of peoples and nations to which we are all inextricably bound and related.

“Treat your neighbor as self.” “Love your enemies.”  “If one strikes you on the cheek, do not retaliate.” “If one asks for your shirt, give them your coat as well.” Even the saying that John’s late gospel could only imagine Jesus once uttering about such an extravagant love that would lead one to “lay down one’s life” for the sake of another (Jn.15:13) is expressive of the generosity of spirit that evidently sprung from such a Jesus-centered consciousness by those early followers who clearly suffered for the sake of conscience.

By sharp contrast, today we send our soldiers off to fight and kill in the name of our precious freedoms. Whether they live or die, we do not ask that they act in good conscience, but only that they follow orders. And whether they live or die, we praise them for their sacrifice, and call their acts heroic. It seems one of the original hallmarks of a “Christian” conscience has been AWOL nearly from its inception. But there’s more.

While Jesus lived and died a faithful Jew, the early church would also struggle with his essential message of inclusion, welcoming gentile believers that did not necessarily ascribe to earlier notions of “traditional” mandated religious requirements.  These Johnny-come-latelies were regarded, in essence, as illegitimate (illegal) aliens in their midst. To simply forgive them their illegal status and welcome them into the household of God certainly rubbed some of them the wrong way. It sounds a lot like amnesty. But led by a religious conscience that spoke to a higher authority over their lives, there was a kind of resonance with those embodied attributes once expressed in Jesus, the spirit person and sage.  Would they listen to the angels of their better nature?

Nowadays, one might make the case that if a “Christian” – generically speaking, of course —  has a conscience, we do a pretty good job of concealing it sometimes. But if that is so, we also have a lot of company, as we celebrate those freedoms by which we seem nearly obsessed to claw out our own personal pursuits of what we think constitutes happiness.  But the author who drafted our Declaration of Independence may have had something else in mind when asserting those God-given rights. “When Jefferson spoke of pursuing happiness,” Garry Wills once wrote in his book on the subject, Inventing America, “he had nothing vague or private in mind. He meant public happiness which is measurable, which is, indeed the test of and justification of any government.” [from Time’s article, July 8, p.39]

If that is so, then the grand experiment we commemorate each Fourth of July of a nation striving to create a “more perfect union,” and that ancient biblical vision of a reign of God continually described by the Galilean with his parables and preaching might not be all that different; particularly for those who would seek to discern the voice of conscience speaking to them in a context of the earliest message of our Christian faith tradition.


© 2013 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

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  1. Thoughtful Christians are “aliens in an alien land” to cop a phrase from someone whom I fail to remember. Maybe Stanley Hawarwas. Your article dragged that thought from the shallowness/depth of my mind. Thank you John.

  2. Fred Fenton /

    Perhaps Robert is thinking of a book by Bill Stringfellow, “An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land.” It was a reflection on the war in Vietnam and a culture of death in America. Bill was a brilliant attorney and an original thinker. I can only imagine what he would make of the sense of alienation most Americans feel toward their government today.

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