Thoughts on Hobby Lobby: “Rights” Don’t Really Exist, So Let’s Stop Pretending They Do

Artist's representation of everyone on the Internet following the Hobby Lobby ruling

Artist’s representation of everyone on the Internet following the Hobby Lobby ruling

Hey, remember when everyone’s head exploded on the Internet over the Hobby Lobby ruling? That was fun, right?

I’m not here to take sides in the debate, but I will go ahead and say that every argument I’ve seen and heard about it has been really, really stupid. I don’t feel like I have much to add to the debate, so I’m not going to harp on it any more. (My original thoughts can be found here; the TLDR version is that I think the debate is a terrible question that gives birth to many terrible answers, but if I had to pick a side in the idiocy, I’d probably agree with the Court, since I don’t think the mandate clearly satisfies the standard set by the RFRA.)



What I do want to talk about is this concept of “rights” we’re all throwing around. It occurs to me that when America’s “conservatives” (who are actually not conservatives at all, but in fact classical liberals, but whatever, fine, words mean nothing, call yourselves conservatives if you want) talk about “rights,” they mean something very different than “liberals” (who are actually…y’know, I’m not really sure, but “progressives” is probably a better word) do. This may not be news to anyone, necessarily, but it certainly explains the head-slapping stupidity that results from arguments over whether corporations have the “right” to freedom of religion and whether women have the “right” to free birth control [of any sort].

To the conservative, the “right” they’re talking about is a Lockean/Jeffersonian sort of thing, given to man at the beginning of time by his Creator. In other words, it’s something real and substantial, something that objectively exists. Something that Matt Walsh can believe in.

And I’d like to take this opportunity to call bullshit on that idea.

On what grounds, exactly, do we argue that God wants everyone to be free to practice whatever religion they choose? We certainly don’t get this impression from any religious text that I know of. The Bible, which is a favorite of mine as well as the plaintiffs in this case, doesn’t once say, “I hereby give you the right to worship me, or Vishnu, or the dust bunnies under your bed, whatever.” It says, “Repent, take up your cross and follow me, or taste eternal hellfire.” Not only is the freedom not there, a specific command is given.

"I have the right to worship ANY WAY I PLEASE? Cool!" --this guy

“I have the right to worship ANY WAY I PLEASE? Cool!” –this guy

To take this even further, a lot of us Christians — pretty much everyone outside of the Arminian camp, really — would assert that not only do you not have the right to choose who to worship, you don’t even have the ability. St. Paul teaches we were dead in our sins, and wouldn’t have even been able to choose to follow Christ without the specific calling of the Holy Spirit and the work of the Sacraments. To say we have the freedom to practice religion makes as much metaphysical sense as it does to say we have the freedom to flap our arms and fly.

Finally, the Bible never makes mention of rights at all. It certainly teaches that God expects us to love our neighbors and meet their needs, but it never once implies that our neighbors are deserving of these mercies. On the contrary, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and the wages of sin are death. In purely metaphysical terms, the only thing any of us can be said to have a “right” to is death and hell.

Artist's representation of your mom's B.O.

Artist’s representation of your mom’s B.O.

I know someone’s going to read this and say, “That’s awful, you awful person!” but keep in mind I’m not saying I necessarily like these ideas. I’m saying I believe them to be true. I also don’t like hurricanes, or Transformers movies, or your mom’s terrible B.O., but those things are realities, regardless of how I feel about them (especially your mom’s B.O.). An idea does not require my approval, or yours, to be true.

I should also say that I’m not arguing against religious freedom as a construct. In practical terms, religious freedom has been good to me — allowing me, for instance, to come to the position I’ve expounded here. I have no objection to religious freedom granted by the government, but I sincerely question those who would argue that it’s something granted inherently by God himself. If you believe this, you don’t believe in the God of the Bible; you believe in a God some dead white guys made up in the 17th century.

I wonder about that too, philosoraptor.

I wonder about that too, philosoraptor.

Since I believe in the God of the Bible, a “right” is nothing more than a useful fiction to me — a means of creating justice in an unjust world — which puts my thinking more in line with “progressives” than “conservatives” (though only technically — I have yet to find an political hill that’s really worth dying on to me). To progressive thinking a “right” is not something endowed by the Divine before all eternity, but rather something people really need, and/or something you’d be a huge jerk to deny them.

This explains why I’ve seen more than a few conservative friends getting all indignant about progressives’ idea of a “right” to reproductive freedom in the last few days. “Really?” they say. “You have the ‘right’ to free birth control, paid for by your boss? When did God grant you that right? Why am I just hearing about this now?”

Yeah...this never happened

Yeah…this never happened

There’s a fundamental disconnect here, because to the progressive, rights are constructed, anyway — anything that you need and feel like fighting for can be a “right.” I agree with conservatives that this is a potentially problematic outlook on rights, but I find it to be a more intellectually honest one. If rights are ultimately granted by an essentially malleable government — which they are — the idea that we can create rights as we see fit is simply the natural conclusion. And why shouldn’t we? The needs of people under a Lockean “state of nature” (which, incidentally, never existed anyway) are not the same as the needs of people under the present system.

This is more the way I lean, but if I can’t seem to muster a lot of enthusiasm for it, well, that’s because it’s more a necessary evil to me than anything. As I’ve said, the Bible talks more in terms of duties to others than individual rights, and it’s my firm belief that if people would simply carry out their duties, there would be no need for the social construct known as rights. If we would anticipate each other’s needs and meet them, no one would have to be making demands of each other.

Seems relevant somehow.

Seems relevant somehow.

Unfortunately, there’s very little of that communitarian spirit left in the U.S. The Right has been almost wholly consumed with the cancer of Randian Objectivism — essentially idolatry of the self — and the Left, while recognizing the injustices of the world, is usually quite happy to see them as Someone Else’s Problem (and I won’t deny being part of the problem there). This is why we keep ending up in court over stupid stuff. When the conflict is between “I got mine” and “Give me mine,” there is no solution; if we could evolve a little bit and head toward “How may I serve you?” that would be a huge step in the right direction.




More deeply offensive stuff for you to get deeply offended by:

Toward a Progressive Pro-Life Ethic

A Break-Up Letter to Matt Walsh

Trolling the Trekkies: Why Wrath of Khan is Overrated

6 thoughts on “Thoughts on Hobby Lobby: “Rights” Don’t Really Exist, So Let’s Stop Pretending They Do

  1. “; if we could evolve a little bit and head toward “How may I serve you?” that would be a huge step in the right direction.” Well, OBVIOUSLY. But people are sinful and incredibly selfish. Which is the main reason that we have government, after all.

  2. I am speechless. I have shared the same opinion of “rights” talk for about 4-5 years now and never could put it into words (at least in a way that I was satisfied with) and was too afraid I would get assassinated–or, worse, cheated at DashCon 2014–to actually publish it. So this a great bravo to you, good sir. I will share this to the end of time…

    because I have a right to.

  3. Interesting. This is the first explanation of a progressive view of rights that makes sense to me.

    Defining rights based on human needs presupposes that people’s needs should be met. Why should the government see to people’s needs? Why should we serve each other? I think the “classical liberal” idealism is very relevant here. Without the understanding that human worth is transcendent and inherent, progressivism could evolve past the belief in the worth of human life.

  4. Pingback: “Tiny Deaths” (not all Truth is true) | The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism

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