Santorum’s Foolish View of Unalienable Rights and the Guillotine

A few days ago, Rick Santorum came up with this twisted view of the French Revolution, the guillotine, and America today:

“They are taking faith and crushing it. Why? Why? When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what’s left is the French Revolution. What’s left is the government that gives you right, what’s left are no unalienable rights, what’s left is a government that will tell you who you are, what you’ll do and when you’ll do it. What’s left in France became the guillotine. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re a long way from that, but if we do and follow the path of President Obama and his overt hostility to faith in America, then we are headed down that road.”

Yes, you read that correctly. If the United States continues its current policies, then Barack Obama is taking us down the road to the guillotine. Why Santorum came up with this rather strange comparison is interesting, but the statement twists history and philosophy on its head. Perhaps the more correct phrase in this context is that it loses its head.

First of all, Santorum has a problem understanding kings and revolutions. Louis XVI, the King of France deposed by the revolutionaries, has never been equated with upholding “God-given rights,” unless it was the divine right of kings. Political philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, from John Locke to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, defined unalienable rights as inherent in being human, rights that cannot be taken away by governments. Thomas Jefferson used it in the Declaration of Independence to lay forth the reasons that the thirteen colonies could no longer tolerate King George’s abuses. Certainly, Santorum accepts the American Revolution as proper in the defense of unalienable rights. However, when it comes to France, he sees the revolution as a threat and the monarchy as the defender of these rights.

The French Revolution was loaded with excesses, but any historian will point out that it played a critical role in developing French democracy and democracy throughout Europe. Santorum is making the strange argument that it is okay to throw off the yoke of a British king but a French king should remain in power. That makes no sense at all.

Santorum also misunderstands the entire purpose of unalienable rights. Jefferson and Rousseau tried to separate these rights from governments, and the legal rights that can be transferred, granted and denied. Their point was that unalienable rights could not be taken away any more legitimately by the despotism of a king or the anarchy of a revolution. Unalienable rights may be denied by a government, but that is the excuse for a revolution. Claiming that “what’s left are no unalienable rights” is an argument against these rights being unalienable in the first place. If they have been removed, then these rights aren’t unalienable. If they are simply denied, the people still have the rights and can exert them by overthrowing an illegitimate government.

Finally, Santorum’s belief that the French Revolution was an assault on faith is a distortion. While many political philosophers freely used God as granting unalienable rights to people, many others declared these rights as natural rights that are preserved under a social contract between the people and government. Deists like Jefferson used “Creator” instead of “God” because they sought to take these rights from the religious realm into something inherent in being human. Kings and popes could not be trusted to protect those rights. The French Revolution was as much a revolution against the monarchy as it was against the corrupt institution of the church. The French monarchy and Catholic Church of that day were neither guarantors of unalienable rights nor faith. They were upholding a corrupt system of privilege and repression.

The French Revolution did go way beyond its purpose. It slipped into anarchy, repression and murder. The days of the guillotine were a terrible period of excess and tyranny. That has nothing to do with America in 2012. Contrary to Santorum’s views, there is no connection between Barack Obama, contraception and the guillotine.

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