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(The following is excerpted from a draft of a forthcoming book)

As previously stated in the introduction Jefferson amended Locke’s phrase ‘life, liberty and property’ (from the latter’s 2nd Treatise on Government) to the phrase ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ in the former’s list of what he regarded as self-evidently inalienable rights with which all men have been endowed by their creator (though Jefferson was a deist, not a theist). This was in contrast to the notion that an English king had a divinely granted indirect moral authority to take away the right of life liberty or property (mainly property, i.e. that of the wealthy drafters of the constitution, drafted after Shay’s Rebellion which acted as somewhat of a catalyst). Despite this, the contemporary American Christian religious view is that although one has been endowed by one’s creator with certain inalienable rights, the creator (unlike the king) DOES have the moral authority to capriciously take those rights away.

So for Jefferson, a non-existent theistic God has the authority to take away your property, but not the King of England: i.e. you can consistently reject the King of England (in the war of independence) but accept God. This sounds like a political scam of the sort that Donald Trump would be proud of. Most uneducated people at the time were religious, who (unlike Jefferson) thought that the King of England and God were equally real.

However, set aside Jefferson’s pro-revolutionary war con for a moment. Suppose he was wrong about denying the existence of a traditional theistic God in the Christian or Muslim sense. A deeper question regarding the relationship between authority and morality arises - does what is morally right or good depend on authority? Can ANY authority be the source of moral rights (and morality in general)?

This question is the main concern of Plato’s Euthythro Dilemma, stated in modern terms as follows:

“Is that which is good, good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?”

Those who favor the first horn of the dilemma here are often called voluntarists - they hold that the whole concept of moral right and wrong depends on God’s will. They claim that it is only because God wills X that X is morally right (or because God forbids X that X is morally wrong), where X could stand for any action or practice at all.

Not only do fundamentalist Muslims hold an implicitly voluntarist view of morality according to which if God commands X it is morally required, so do fundamentalist Christians. Quoting scripture that is intended to morally sanction separating children from parents (as did fundamentalist Christian Jeff Sessions) is to rely on the same kind of moral reasoning as the Islamic fundamentalist idea that apostates should be killed. Either way, the fundamentalist Christians and Muslims who accept this moral reasoning are on a par: in each case they accept that what is morally good/right is wholly determined by what God has commanded. They only differ on their idea about what God has in fact commanded.

Suppose religious-sounding moderate Democrats say - keeping children in cages, separating them from their parents etc. is morally wrong! Suppose non-fundamentalist religious people in general say that killing people for denouncing a certain religion is morally wrong! Why? Because God is good (and though God is the source of morality) God wouldn’t command us to do these things?

This reply would be to abandon voluntarism not to defend it, since it would involve appealing to a standard for morality which is independent of God’s commands, i.e. that it’s morally wrong to keep innocent children in cages away from their parents (regardless of the context, e.g. seeking asylum) and morally wrong to kill people for denouncing a religion.

Ironically, much of Trump’s base (and probably the base that Joe Biden will try to appeal to if he gains the Democratic nomination for President in 2020, like Hillary did in 2016) implicitly share the same sort of voluntarist Christian view regarding the source of morality as do the voluntarist Islamists that Trump despises. In effect, many people support Trump because they implicitly espouse a Christian version of voluntarism rather than a Muslim one.

The bottom line is that Christian or Muslim, a voluntarist conception of moral rights doesn’t work philosophically. No authority, not even a divine one, can be the source of moral rights. Thomas Jefferson realized this and didn’t think a theistic God of the traditional kind (Christian, Muslim etc.) existed anyway. The founding fathers were concerned with protecting their own wealth, using popular belief in religion to their advantage. Apparently, (with some notable exceptions - Bernie and ‘the squad’ he has inspired) not much has changed in politics in America since then.

P.S. The question of the actual source of morality is the subject of an ongoing philosophical debate - see e.g. A. J. Doherty: “‘Right’ Said Father Fred: Father Ted And Moral Philosophy” in Amazon’s kindle store for an introduction to the issue:

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1520929285/ref=dbs_a_def_awm_bibl_vppi_i1

Contemporary Americans who hold dear the Declaration of Independence, but who also espouse fundamentalist Christianity (also e.g. Mike Pence, Mike Huckabee (father of Sarah Sanders-Huckabee, former White House Press Secretary) Betsy Devos, Ben Carson etc.) need to take this question seriously. Their answer affects what their honest attitude should be towards Trump’s pro-Saudi foreign policy, immigration policy and especially his attempts at a Muslim travel-ban, religiously-biased criticism of Ilhan Omar, his racist tweets about four Congress members who are also women of color etc.