Our “Constitutional Right” to the Pursuit of Happiness


Warning: disturbing topic ahead. Some readers will find some of this material objectionable.

I was a pump jockey when I was in high school, a noble profession that has almost disappeared in most of America. Not familiar with the term? I worked at a full-serve gas station, filling up gas tanks, checking oil, cleaning windshields. There are a couple states (Oregon and New Jersey, that I know of) that still do not permit self-serve gasoline stations, and they are the only places where my former career is still much plied.*

I was working there during the (first?) great gasoline shortages. The federal government prohibited the sale of gasoline on Sundays. One of my fellow workers there was incensed, and he thought he had a case to make against it. “It’s unconstitutional! The constitution guarantees us the pursuit of happiness, and my pursuit of happiness means being able to work my job on Sundays!”

Well, there are couple of problems with that, I tried to explain to him. (I didn’t bring up working on the Sabbath, that didn’t matter to me at the time.) First, “the pursuit of happiness” is nowhere in the Constitution. There is no such legal guarantee. It’s in the Declaration of Independence. Yes, it’s one of the ideas that led toward the founding of our country, but it’s just one among many, and it’s not enshrined as law.

Second, even if it were law, it’s just not quite that simple. Do we really think the government can take everybody’s idea of happiness into account, and make laws that work for all of them?

All this came to mind today as I was reading WorldNetDaily on “Bestiality ‘OK If Animal Approves.‘” That’s the opinion of gay rights activist Frank Kameny. There’s a lot that’s ridiculous in what they’re reporting on there, and much that’s quite horrifying, not least of which is this from Kameny:

“Absolutely indisputably a central part of the very definition of Americanism is the guarantee, found in the Declaration of Independence, as not merely a Right, but as an Inalienable Right, of the ‘Pursuit of Happiness,'” he wrote. “If something which someone arbitrarily defines as a ‘sexual perversion’ provides happiness for consenting adult participants, then its enjoyment is enshrined in basic Americanism.

“So: Let us have more and better enjoyment of more and better sexual perversions, by whatever definition, by more and more consenting adults. We will all be the better off thereby. And that will be Americanism in action,” he said.

The morality is perverted there. I will not go into any further details on it here. The logic is perverted as well. Can you quite imagine Thomas Jefferson or James Madison agreeing that the last quoted sentence there represents Americanism in action?

What is it that produces this kind of thinking? First, there is sin, and the desire to normalize it to reduce guilt. In the famous Romans 1:18-32 passage that describes a progression into deeper and deeper depths of sin, the culmination is not sexual sin, murder, or hate. The list does not end with “foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (vs. 31, ESV). The culmination, the ultimate is

they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

Need I point out how this is being practiced more and more in our culture, the California Supreme Court being a recent example?

Added to all that is the disdain Americans too often feel toward careful thinking. The logic of this ought not to seem so attractive, even to the man who stated it!

*Interestingly enough, that gas station stayed open as a full-service station, with self-serve competitors right across the street, until rising gas prices finally did it in just a few months ago. I don’t know how it survived that long; I was certainly sad to see it go.

13 Responses

  1. Jacob says:

    What is it that produces this kind of thinking?
    While we can surely point to sin as the source of this kind of thinking, empirically speaking the most significant source of this person’s sense of happiness is the Declaration of Independence.  The speaker is offering a pretty disturbing interpretation of those words and what they mean.
    The problem with pointing to sin as the “First” reason is that sin (as a human condition) can be used to explain everything negative about human action and, therefore, it explains nothing in particular.

  2. Tom Gilson says:

    I’m having breakfast tomorrow morning with a friend who’s a physicist at Jefferson Lab. Or maybe doctor(logic) (also a physicist) might want to address this question for us online:

    If a theory that explains everything explains nothing, wouldn’t it be a real relief, and a huge savings of money, just to give up working on the Grand Unified Theory/Theory of Everything? Why bother trying to understand how to unify the four fundamental forces? As soon as we did that, well, we wouldn’t have any explanation for anything.

    Actually, Jacob, I’m confident you didn’t mean it in quite that way, and the analogy to physics isn’t really fair after all. But what did you mean?

  3. Jacob says:

    I mean, you explain the production of this kind of perverted interpretation by referring to an invisible general cause–sin–that you presume to be relevant in this particular case.
    Empirically, your explanation doesn’t hold up in this particular case.
    Are you trying to explain the production of this kind of thinking along theological or scientific grounds?

  4. Tom Gilson says:

    I wasn’t trying to be that thoroughly analytical, really. That would require a lot more effort, and a lot more personal contact with the person who said this. 

    Sin is a general explanation (and a descriptive word) for the evil persons do. The term has multiple, complementary meanings which together make up a complete definition. The aspect of sin that’s relevant here is that it describes humans’ disconnection from God, who (if we were properly in relationship with him) would provide us the spiritual and emotional satisfaction that would give us a sense of completeness, and the motivation toward perversion would be cut off. Additionally, sin includes humans’ general tendency not to seek what is best in God’s eyes. This tendency is expressed in various ways by various people, including things like independence from God, pride, hatred, greed, deceit, and (in this case) sexual perversion.

    In those senses the explanation for this kind of thinking can be found partly in the sin problem. I did not mean to represent it that this was the only category or information that would help us in understanding it, however. There are layers upon layers of dynamics feeding into it. The bottom layer is the general problem of human sin.

  5. Tom Gilson says:

    Empirically, your explanation doesn’t hold up in this particular case.

    Does that mean it’s wrong?

  6. Jacob says:

    “Wrong” isn’t the word that I would apply.  I would say “unwarranted.”

  7. Tom Gilson says:

    I knew that was how you would answer…

  8. Tom Gilson says:

    I think he was speaking to those who already accept this position and know the reasons for it.

    Inerrancy is both a theological and a philosophical position. The Bible represents itself as the revelation of God, speaking through his prophets. 2 Timothy 3:16 is one of the clearest statements of the position, but Jesus’ own affirmations, such as in Matthew 5:17-19 strengthen it considerably. 2 Peter 3:16 places the letters of Paul in the same category as the “other Scriptures.” The same book 2 Peter 1:20, affirms God’s ultimate authorship of the Scriptures, although working through human agency.

    The authority and teaching usefulness of Scripture are very clearly enunciated here. The further inference to inerrancy follows from what we know to be true of God: that he does not lie. 

    This is a quick answer on a complex subject, not the main point of the post so I won’t belabor it.

    Note: this comment should have been attached to this post. Not sure how it got mixed up.

  9. Jacob says:

    Is there something wrong with that answer?

  10. Tom Gilson says:

    Is there something wrong with that answer?

    Heh 😉

  11. Heath says:

    Sunday is not the Sabbath…

    Other than that, I agree wholeheartedly with your post.

  12. Thanks, Tom…keep it coming!

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