By Dan Calabrese
I’m not sure this is an exercise with a direct, practical application in the sense that it changes any policy or anyone’s life if it happens.
But that’s not to say Tennessee wouldn’t be doing something significant by making this move, which is exactly why you can expect plenty of opposition to it from secularists, and probably not just on the left – although primarily there for reasons we’ll get into in a moment.
Why does it matter if your state constitution takes a position on what, exactly, is the source of liberty? That’s what we may be about to find out:
A resolution that would change the Tennessee Constitution to say that God is the source of liberty for the state’s citizens is gaining momentum.
The House passed the measure last year and it will go before a full Senate vote after clearing a judiciary committee this week.
One of the main sponsors of the House joint resolution is Rep. Micah Van Huss, a Republican from Jonesborough.
Van Huss is proposing that the state constitution say, “We recognize that our liberties do not come from governments, but from Almighty God.”
Amending the Tennessee constitution is a lengthy process. Proposed changes must pass by a majority during one two-year General Assembly, and then pass by at least two-thirds in the next, and then be approved by voters in a gubernatorial election year.
Just an exercise in semantics? I don’t think so. If liberty comes from God, that means it’s inherent. You don’t need anyone to give it to you. You don’t need the state to confer it on you. You just have it by virtue of being born. The state’s role is to protect your liberty, not to grant it to you or decide how much you’re entitled to.
That matters for a number of reasons. For one thing, it makes it harder to justify state actions that presume to grant you new liberties, because it’s not the state’s role to grant liberty in the first place. A lot of people think the U.S. Constitution confers on them the right to free speech, the right to bear arms, the right to religious freedom and all the rest. It doesn’t. What the Bill of Rights does is acknowledge that these rights are inherent and inalienable.
Now, if something is inalienable, what does that mean? It means it can’t be taken away. Why not? If the state is the ultimate authority, then the state can take it away. Yet in its own founding document, the federal government declares that these rights belong inherently to individuals are outside the government’s reach. That is only a plausible idea if there is a power who outranks the government that was, in fact, the source of these rights.
In other words, the Constitution implicitly acknowledges that it lacks the authority to either grant or take away your rights, because the power from which they came is higher than government. That power can only be God, and if you doubt that this is what the framers intended, all you have to do is read the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence – which many of the framers signed – to know who they believed was the giver of these rights.
If Tennessee makes this change to its state constitution, it will officially acknowledge that God outranks the Tennessee state government on the question of people’s liberties, which will cast doubt on the claims people make that the state should grant them new rights like free food, clean water, free health care or whatever else. Because rights don’t come from the state. The state only protects them.
But it’s also crucial that the state doesn’t pretend rights just are, but that in fact they come from a specific source, and that source is God. Because if rights just are, then their source is nothing, and the state can overrule nothing any time it feels like it. But it can’t overrule God, because it’s already acknowledged His superiority.
This will be a very useful exercise, not least because of how instructive the debate on it is likely to be. I hope the measures advocates stick to the ideas we’ve been discussing here and don’t turn it into a ham-handed debate about “traditional family values” or whatever. I’m all for those values, but as with liberty, the state doesn’t need to deliver them to us.
God is their source.
Dan writes Christian spiritual warfare novels and does all kinds of other weird things too. Follow all his activity by liking him on Facebook!