Under ATTACK: Liberty and the Bill of Rights

Bill of Rights "assault" posterLet’s get foundational, shall we?

I know there’s a certain frentic craziness to election season. There are promises, accusations, and arguments flying. The reasons to vote for either candidate seem out numbered by the attack ads against them. But when you clear away all the noise and get down to what’s really essential, elections aren’t all that complicated.

They are about the future of America: whether our nation will move towards or away from the vision our nation’s founders cast. The Declaration sums it up this way:

“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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

So these are the basics: we have a right to LIVE, to our LIBERTY, and to PURSUE HAPPINESS. There’s been some confusion about that last phase – it’s been summarized by some as “property,” and that isn’t a bad way to think of it. The Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was written by George Mason, has this phrase:

“That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety…”

We might say that the “pursuit of happiness” is about a person’s inherent right to use their earthly possessions and labors, along with their reason and moral sense, to further their enjoyment of life.

These rights are natural, or God given, our founders believed. They are not granted by government and so cannot be taken away by government. They are not made up by people, and so people cannot rightly deprive each other of them. Rather, the government is owned by the people and exists to protect the rights of the people.

But, of course, the history of humanity is a history of people doing what they ought not, depriving each other of what they should not, and of governments, established to secure human freedoms, using their power to infringe on human rights. Our founders knew that, and at least some of them were fearful of a the ways a strong central government could threaten individual liberty, so they specifically enumerated certain of our rights and restricted government from imposing on them. Again, Virginian George Mason is our hero, because he insisted on and drafted the Bill of Rights, saying that the U.S. Constitution was inadequate without it: “There is no Declaration of Rights, and the laws of the general government being paramount to the laws and constitution of the several States, the Declarations of Rights in the separate States are no security.”

Jumping ahead to the present day, we see these individual rights being increasingly marginalized, collectivized and minimized. How?
Well, let’s review:
#1 Freedom of Religion, Speech, Press, Assembly, and Petition
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Increasingly, the Obama administration has replaced the idea of “free exercise of religion” with “freedom to worship.” Now these are two very different ideas: the right to live ones’s faith includes every aspect of life, it is not just the right to go to the mosque, synagogue, church or temple of one’s choice. But in order to abrogate conscience rights, it is first necessary to privatize religion, thus the administration’s redefinition of freedom of religion.
When it comes to free speech, the American conception of the individual’s freedom to articulate their beliefs is unique in the world. Not all messages are true, desirable, helpful or even good, but in the U.S., the government is specifically enjoined against abridging your right to say what you will. Yet there are elements on the left who would love to see European style laws enacted that enable the government to control offensive messages. Already we have examples of localities attempting to shut down street preachers using aggressive solicitation ordinances. Certain mayors would deny Chick-fil-a the right to conduct business in their locality because of the religious views of Mr. Cathy. There are those that believe defaming or blaspheming someone else’s religion should be forbidden here, as it is in most European countries. Others would deny the right of individuals to organize and to amplify their speech as a group (see the controversy surrounding Citizens United). The proliferation of hate crimes laws unavoidably cross into the subjective – punishing not actions but thoughts and speech.

#2 Homeland Defense
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Who has not heard the wrong-headed argument that the 2nd Amendment is a collective right, rather than an individual one? There are those who would say that Virginia’s national guard is our militia and as long as they have guns, we are free. But, no, the 2nd Amendment is fundamentally about the right of THE PEOPLE to own and use their firearms for any lawful purpose. As long as free men and women have the means of defending themselves and their communities, America will never be hospitable to tyrants. But those who would be tyrants will always seek to limit the people’s access to weapons, creating a fundamental inequality between the citizenry and agents of the state. In the second debate, President Obama called for the re-institution of the mis-named “Assault Weapons Ban,” once again proving that he either does not understand or does not respect the 2nd Amendment.

#5 Property
…nor shall [any person] be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
In Kelo v. New London, this clause of the 5th amendment was eviscerated. According to the broadened judicial definition of “public use,” private property can be taken for virtually any reason at all. In addition, the federal government has increasingly used the once unheard of regulatory taking power to severely constrain an individual’s use of their own property, often significantly devaluing it.

*** Thankfully, we in Virginia will see an amendment to our constitution on the ballot in a week that protects citizens from abuse of the eminent domain power by state government. Please vote YES on Ballot Question 1.***

4th & 6th Amendment rights to be secure from unreasonable search and seizure and to a speedy and fair trial have been indisputably weakened by the bipartisan Patriot Act. The 10th Amendment is routinely ignored by politicians in both parties. I could go on, but this blog post is already too long.

All of these facts and trends combine to make a phrase repeated ad nauseum more true than ever: this really is the most important election of our life times (and so is the next one), because our liberties are increasingly under assault. And if we do not elect representatives who are willing to protect our rights or lose elections trying, we may soon see ourselves losing our liberties or dying trying to protect them.

Elections may seem complex. Candidates talk about important issues like jobs and healthcare and the economy and foreign policy and budgets and student loan forgiveness, and teacher pay and developing alternative energy. As important as all of those issues are, there is one question that towers above them – one that clarifies all the others. It is this: WHICH CANDIDATE WILL DO THE BEST (or even the least bad) JOB OF RESTORING AND PROTECTING MY RIGHTS, MY LIBERTIES?

And as important as the Presidential election is, our House and Senate elections are just as – if not more – vital to the future of liberty in our country. Evaluate your congressional representatives. Ask them questions about how they interpret the Constitution – particularly the Bill of Rights and what they will do to stop the assault on your freedom.

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