The Declaration of Independence contains these famous words:
“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.”
What isn’t always understood by modern ears, is the exact meaning of “unalienable” (identical in meaning to “inalienable” – used interchangeably here). It’s not a word most Americans use every day. The word is defined as “that which cannot be given away or taken away.” When the Founder’s wrote of “unalienable rights” they meant that there are certain rights that cannot be taken away, namely, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and equality. While individuals and governments can certainly take away these things, they cannot take away the rights to those same things. For example, someone can take away my car by theft, but he cannot take away my rights to that car, since it’s mine.
Think about these rights for a moment. If these ideas (life, liberty, etc.) are indeed rights, then there is a right-ness to keeping them, and a wrong-ness to taking them away. It is wrong to unjustly take away someone’s life, for instance. But by whose authority is it wrong? And who decided that certain aspects of our existence were actual rights? Such language implies – no, demands – an authority. But who or what can bestows upon human beings rights? Can governments? Certainly a group of leaders can give rights by the laws they enact and then enforce. But these are not unalienable. They are only as good as the paper they are printed on and the remembrance of those who in power who choose to enforce them. Given rights can be taken away, inherent rights cannot. Humans can give rights, but cannot instill an inherent (inalienable) right.
What the Founder’s understood is that in order for there to be such a thing as an unalienable right, it must have been bestowed by the Creator. In other words, there must be a transcendent being who created us with these rights. In the same vein, any moral code of right and wrong, if it is to be taken as absolute, must transcend us all. Otherwise, right and wrong, good and evil, are just opinions, varying by culture and individual. If there is no higher authority, one who is above all human institutions, unalienable rights cannot be established.
So how is this a “bane” for non-theism? Because they cannot affirm the most fundamental statement of the Declaration. To accept it as true would be either hypocritical or inconsistent with their belief system. Yet this sentence is not only one of the most famous in our nation’s history, it is also one of the most important; for it lays the foundation for the rest of the document, as well as the Constitution and Bill of Rights. This is perhaps the primary reason non-theists have rarely been elected to the Congress, and never to the Presidency – at least those who are openly so. Most Americans still intuitively understand what our Founding Fathers knew: God himself gave us our rights, and there is an unspoken fear that those who do not hold the same values will be the ones who initiate the change to take away those same rights.
An important question is often raised. Can a non-theist be a good president? The reality is that some atheists might actually make a great Commander-in-Chief, just as many are good fathers, husbands/wives, neighbors, workers, teachers, leaders, etc. Yet these “good” behaviors are in spite of their belief system (or lack thereof), not the result of it (And, it could be argued, their morality is largely borrowed from Christian principles – the product of growing up in a country still somewhat immersed in Judeo-Christian values). The central issue in a country built on many freedoms is that the non-theist cannot uphold unalienable rights. This is a huge problem, considering the country is built around a central principle: freedom. If non-theists cannot affirm that certain freedoms are inalienable, then how can they affirm Constitutional rights? For sake of worldview consistency, those rights would have to be radically reinterpreted. And that is what most Americans fear.