Why should you look both ways before crossing the street? Answer: God said so. Why is food better than poison? Answer: God said so.

Clearly “God said so” is not a reason or justification for such things. At best, it’s the well-known fallacy of the argument from authority. Yet on the crucially important question of why individuals possess rights and should be left free, the usual answer amounts to: God said so.

Tea Party conservatives routinely invoke God as the source of rights. As speaker Vicki McKenna said at Madison’s recent Tea Party event, “Rights [are] granted to us by God, not government. [Do we want] government as God? Hell no!” And supposedly freedom-loving religious conservatives like Glenn Beck call for a return to religion and insist America is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles. But this is a mistake, both historically and in reason. Contrary to the claims of religious conservatives, invoking God in politics is an argument against liberty.

Despite the Founders’ numerous references to God, especially in the realm of morality, their basis for individual rights was natural, not supernatural. Liberty, to the Founders, meant accepting no authority above their own reasoned judgment. They went to great lengths to argue for liberty on the basis of man’s nature and his need to use his mind and act in the service of his own life and happiness. This revolutionary idea meant that, for the first time, individuals were regarded as ends in themselves, not as the means to the ends of others.

The opposite of liberty is any form of authoritarianism, whether monarchy, aristocracy, theocracy, socialism, communism, fascism, democracy or the welfare state. In all such systems individuals are regarded as subordinate to something “larger than themselves” and bound to obey the dictates of some authority, whether king, pope, fuehrer, central planner or majority whim. The Founders rejected this authoritarian approach in all its forms. They designed a system of government, with its separation of powers and checks and balances, specifically for the purpose of protecting individuals against not only kings and monarchs, but also religious authorities and majorities.

This vision of America is in stark contrast with that of today’s leadership.

The Left openly wants an authoritarian government — one that decides what drugs are acceptable, what investments can be made, what kind of insurance one must purchase, how much must be spent on roads, education, health care, retirement, etc. This authoritarianism is routinely displayed by President Obama, who ridicules the people he represents, saying he is “amused” by their protests and that “they should be thanking [him]” for the favor of “incentivizing” them with tax credits as he mortgages their futures with trillion-dollar spending, deficits and controls. The Left clearly wants a cradle-to-grave authoritarian state.

But where does the rest of the country stand? Americans still have a strong aversion to authoritarianism, at least on an emotional level. The Tea Parties, which are a reaction against the brazen authoritarianism of the Obama administration, are a prime example of this. But do Tea Partiers understand the nature of the enemy? Are they, like the Founders, against authoritarianism or just the Left’s version of it?

The Left justifies its political views by appealing to authority. We must serve “the public interest,” they say. And who speaks for “the public?” Government. But when conservatives invoke God as the justification for their political views, are they not merely citing their own authority to which individuals will be held accountable?

Whereas the Left worships an amorphous collective called “society,” which it holds above the individual as the source and standard of value, the religious right worships a mystical God, which it holds above the individual as the source and standard of value. Both views are essentially authoritarian. Both tell the individual that there’s something greater than themself to which they must atone.

But any view — even the view that you should be free — if justified on authoritarian grounds, necessarily means the destruction of liberty. It is no accident that Sarah Palin recently came out against the separation of church and state. To the extent one appeals to some authority higher than oneself, whether God or “society,” they will necessarily advocate for the government to act as that authority’s representative.

Rights are not gifts from God, but the recognition of certain facts. Namely, that one’s own life and happiness is an end in itself and that life requires thinking, not obedience. This means holding a sublime reverence for one’s own mind and accepting no masters, neither in Washington nor in heaven. It means following reason and acting on your own best judgment to make your life the best it can be. A proper government is one that respects this right for all individuals.

Jim Allard ([email protected]) is a graduate student in biological sciences.