At a rambunctious town hall in his district, Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., ran into something he probably never expected to see in his district: voters booing the concept of fundamental, God-given rights.
“As a seminary graduate, do you believe in the separation of church and state?” the questioner began. “Would it be acceptable for you for churches to support specific candidates?”
The question was in reference to the Johnson Amendment, which President Trump recently gutted somewhat with his lackluster order on religious liberty.
“Absolutely,” Brat initially answered, cautioning that he was asked “a loaded question.”
“It’s in the Constituiton. They got it pretty good,” Brat said amidst the crows of hecklers.
“The politics shouldn’t establish any religion, right?” Brat added, to a response of claps and cheers. “But you should all, under the First Amendment, have the free expression thereof.”
But he took the argument deeper, asking an enthusiastic audience if they wanted a “total separation of state,” and cautioning that he did not think such an arrangement would be a good thing.
“Some of you have said that health care is a right,” the congressman explained. “And in the Western tradition, rights come from God. The role of government is to protect those rights.”
The hecklers responded with a chorus of sustained boos.
The question and its response came during a Tuesday night event – his first since the House’s most-recent health care vote – and was attended by hundreds, and fraught with jeers.
In an op-ed published the day after, the Richmond-Times Dispatch’s editorial board lauded the congressman for attempting to engage in civil discourse while excoriating the crowd’s “astonishing rudeness.”
“People have every right to rage at their congressmen, their president, or anybody else they care to,” the board stated. “After a while, though, the emotional vomiting gets old … when did banging on a high chair with a spoon ever lead to a solution?
Brat’s answer about rights was not wrong, of course. This republic was founded by men of different faiths who had a common understanding that their rights came from a transcendent, pre-political source, and established a system of government to ensure that these inalienable rights would be protected, rather than metered out by kings and demagogues.
Our denominationally neutral Declaration of Independence reflects this, appealing to the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” as the font from which our fundamental liberties and inherent equality spring.
Apparently, the concept of rights coming from God – or civil discourse in general – just wasn’t what Rep. Brat’s constituents showed up to hear that night.