Bill Maher Misses the Point of the Bill of Rights

This Friday on comedian Bill Maher’s show, Real Time with Bill Maher, Mr. Maher made an assertion about the Second Amendment that I find to be wrong and would like to refute. Ending a rant about how he finds it annoying that Democrats are hesitant to touch the Second Amendment, he said, “The Second Amendment is just words that humans made at a certain moment in history when it felt right. It’s an amendment, not a commandment.”

Before I start, I’d like to personally state that I find enjoyment in Maher’s show and watch it regularly (I’ve even seen him live). Though I often disagree with what he says, I’ll watch his show for the jokes and for the interesting guests he has on (often he has multiple guests on his show that he disagrees with). I enjoy his sense of humor which is often unrestrained and unreserved. In addition, he isn’t afraid to cross the line and almost no opinion of his could turn me away from watching his show. However, that does not mean I’m not going to attempt to refute him when I believe he is wrong.

I find that what he said about the Second Amendment is wrong for a couple reasons:

He misses the whole point of the Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights, which the Second Amendment is a part of, is not written to be read the same way that a law would be read. The Bill of Rights was written to identify some of the unalienable rights that we are born with and to serve as a document that would eternally protect those rights from infringement by the government.  In several of the amendments, rights are explicitly identified and protected, hence why the First Amendment begins with, “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting … or abridging the freedom of …,” then the various rights contained in that amendment are listed. By writing it in this manner, these rights are not simply identified, but rather are explicitly protected from infringement. The Second Amendment functions the same way, however written back-to-front: “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

The Bill of Rights is a list of unalienable rights bestowed upon us by our Creator, so when Maher asserts that the Second Amendment is just, “words that humans made up,” he is missing the point of the document. The Bill of Rights uses words that are “made up” (as every word, law, and constitution is) to identify rights that we, as United States Citizens, possess simply by being born. We were given these unalienable rights by our Creator, whatever or whoever you interpret that to be. These aren’t commandments and they aren’t explicative dictates by our Creator. Rather, our unalienable rights are the rights bestowed upon us as humans by our Creator in order to protect us from a despotic and tyrannical government.

I can understand where Maher draws his argument from, since he is proudly Atheist and thus does not believe in a creator. From his perspective, since there is no creator, these “rights” don’t objectively exist at all, and are indeed completely “made up” by people. I will admit that from his point of view, a view lacking a creator and thus god-given rights, he is correct.

However, following this we come to the second problem I find with his argument:

Where his logic takes us is frightening

If indeed there is no Creator to give us unalienable rights, then humans have no natural rights. If we can throw out or completely reword the Second Amendment to have a totally different meaning because, “those words were just made up and this is what we believe now,” what is stopping us as a society from throwing out other elements of the Bill of Rights? If it’s all imaginatively constructed, doesn’t that mean that freedom of speech, freedom of religion, protection from cruel and unusual punishments, trial by jury of peers, and all of the other so-called rights that we all cherish can simply be dumped? This is essentially where Maher’s logic, when followed further downstream, concludes.

This dangerously nihilistic view allows governments to oppress their citizens in any way they see fit. The Soviet Union, a prime example of an Atheist state, committed atrocities upon its populace on a scale reaching into the millions, suppressing basic freedoms and rights that we as Americans enjoy and take for granted, because they did not view their citizens as inherently possessing those rights. Of course, I’m not accusing Maher of conspiring to strip people of their basic rights, but he argued that it is OK to strip people of a god-given right because according to his view, there is no Creator, and these rights are simply “made up”.

(Belief in the Bill of Rights does not require acknowledgement of a creator, I know many Atheists who strongly believe in the idea of natural rights. Though they dispute the source of the rights, they acknowledge that they are fundamental and vital.)

Natural rights are perpetual

All of the rights listed in the Bill of Rights should be respected equally; freedom of speech does not outrank the right to bear arms or the right to due process. Naturally, all of these rights are open to reasonable regulation: you can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater and you can’t own a flamethrower (without many, many permits). These often-narrow regulations shape our natural rights to fit today’s needs without largely infringing upon them. Aside from that, these rights are unalienable, and cannot be neglected or annulled simply because we want them to be. Natural rights, like those outlined in the Bill of Rights, are perpetual and transcend society’s ever-changing opinions.

I often hear pro-gun people echo a variation of the line, “If they take the Second, nothing stops them from taking the First”. There are two interpretations of that: First and most obvious: a government that takes away a people’s right to self-defense is able to infringe upon more rights without large fear of citizen retaliation. The second meaning of that quote is what I’ve already explained: if you take away one right on the grounds that it is “made-up”, all of the other rights become susceptible to that argument and can be easily disposed of. Liberals should be careful not to throw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater.

With this all being said and done, I don’t hate Maher for what he said and I’m going to keep watching his show for the comedic value. Just two lines before he presented the argument that I just spent quite an amount of time passionately refuting, he cracked a joke about Ronald Reagan that I found to be hilarious, “… a hard slog never fazes conservatives; Ronald Reagan used to be a joke, now he’s an airport.” I respect Maher, despite fundamentally disagreeing with him.

To invoke the free speech quote that is often repeated ad nauseam: Bill, I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it, and I hope you’d be willing to do the same for me.

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