It related to giving released prisoners humane treatment. That is a good thing to do. However, the expression depicts more than humane treatment. In encompasses the morality of our entire evolving culture.
Once cherished liberty has become license. Rights are now considered entitlements.
John Leland, who played a significant role in the codifying the Bill of Rights of our Constitution wrote: “Whenever a number of men enter into a state of society, a number of individual rights must be given up to society, but there should be a memorial of those not surrendered, otherwise, every natural and domestic right becomes alienable, which raises Tyranny at once, and this is as necessary in one form of government as in another.”
In effect he foresaw that unless what the government can’t take away is defined, it can take it away. Thus, the items in the Bill of Rights were the original entitlements.
In a drive to change our culture secularists, knowing they likely could not repeal the rights, simply went about redefining them. In certain instances the redefinition has given the right the opposite meaning from that originally intended.
This is how liberty, the Bill of Rights, becomes license. Liberty entails personal restraint within well defined borders. It is the giving up of certain rights for the good of society as Leland observed. It is also the preservative of defined rights. It is also the defending of certain defined rights. It is objective. The object determining the borders is the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
License is subjective and is concerned with the self-will of the individual who sets personally gratifying standards. Liberty is considerate of the entire community. License is absorbed with personal interest.
The more one values liberty the more self-restraint they are willing to exercise. The more one favors license the greater freedom they feel to do and say what they want to when and where they want to.
The government of late has joined the fray. When this happens the Tyranny of which Leland wrote begins. From there it is a slippery slope regarding what rights they can abrogate.
Using the liberty afforded by our rights moralists have reinterpreted the language granting the right. They are winning the semantics battle. It is becoming less a matter of law and more a matter of linguistics.
Hermeneutics is the science of language long used to interpret the Bible. One basic principle is if you want to know what a word authored years before means look at documents of the era to see how it was used and what it meant at the time of use.
If that were done with only the first one of the Bill of Rights our society would be dramatically different. Words slowly evolve and with them the principles on which they were based changes. Thus, “the evolving standard of decency.”
The first word in the First Amendment is “Congress.” It was intended to put restraints on government, not religion. It was as Thomas Jefferson originally meant by his out of context statement regarding a “wall of separation.” It was used to assure the Danbury Baptists that Congress would not name any one denomination as the official religion of the nation while giving freedom of religion in the market place of ideas.
The rhapsodic Old Testament prophet Jeremiah spoke of increasing challenges using figurative language: “If you have run with the footmen, and they have wearied you, then how can you contend with the horses?” Translated, “You haven’t seen anything yet.”
The Rev. Dr. Nelson Price is pastor emeritus of Roswell Street Baptist Church.