The new governor of Wisconsin raised some eyebrows the other day with something noncontroversial that he said during his inauguration speech.
Gov. Scott Walker said, among other things, “Our rights as free people are given by our creator, not the government. Among these rights is the right to nurture our freedom and vitality through limited government.”
Some made a small fuss about the insertion of a supernatural creator into a secular event. They had little recourse, seeing as Walker was quoting from the Wisconsin Constitution when he talked about being “grateful to almighty God for our freedom.”
For centuries and even millennia, humanity has operated on the presumption that some people are better than others, that common people are born to serve superior people, and that the kindest superior people bestow freedoms on commoners who find favor with them.
In 1776 the Founders of the United States of America turned this notion on its head, declaring that we are born free.
“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,” declared the Founders, “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
They instituted regular elections, a peaceful way of securing the next clause in their declaration: “That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
Now, you can quarrel if you wish regarding whether this creator exists, but it would not change the basic fact on which American government was founded: Public servants live to serve the people — the people do not live to serve the government.
Each individual is created with certain, inherent rights, beginning with the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, comprise what has been dubbed a secular 10 commandments, but rather than God prescribing individual behavior — you shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery — these commandments are directed at the government: You shall not restrain what people say, you shall not search their persons or property in an unreasonable fashion, etc.
From the beginning the struggle has continued between those who believe in these principles and those who believe having a king was a better idea. Indeed, it was many years before a majority acknowledged that the words “all men are created equal” really do apply to all men — of all skin colors and faiths — and to women, as well.
As a recent president put it so well, “as government expands, liberty contracts.”
For at least the past four years — and I would argue it has been much longer — the majority in power has held to the belief that the people exist for the government, which is comprised of superior people who know better how the common people should live their lives.
For all of my lifetime, the president of the United States has been accorded the kinds of perks and honors previously reserved for monarchs, and those who work for the government have increasingly applied the notion that they exist to dictate terms to the people.
In the last election the notion that all men are created equal, and that government serves the people, seems to have prevailed. We shall see whether those who were elected really believe the principles that got them elected.
They will have to struggle against those who still believe that government exists to govern, with or without the consent of the governed. It is a struggle that began in July 1776. The revolution, it seems, never ended.