Who knew faith spoke to the Supreme Court’s unanimous defense of private property owners in Sackett vs. EPA? In that decision, the Court firmly, though not intentionally, reasserted a Biblical understanding of private property and the right to appeal the government’s administrative seizure of property. Most people of faith might be surprised to learn that the Bible speaks to the issue at all.They likely haven’t heard a homily on the topic in a while — if ever.
Does the Bible speak to the EPA, wetlands, and the Administrative Procedure Act? Well, not exactly with those terms, although some critics would argue that Christ’s vehement rebuke of the Pharisees might apply here. But I digress. In fact, key Biblical truths form a framework for people of faith to think about our right to private property. I would argue that the Bible speaks more often to our right to private property than it does to our right to life. Consider the detailed case laws applied to the people of God in the Old Testament, the extensive treatment of property in the wisdom literature of Solomon, and the admonitions of Christ and the Apostles that deal with our physical stuff and you’ll get the idea. Here are a few key truths from the Bible that should affect our view of the right to private property in Sackett vs.EPA, other Supreme Court cases, and our daily lives:
You Shall Not Steal
The eight commandment is a good place to start. Clearly implied by this command is the simple truth that some things must belong to someone other than me. Otherwise, I couldn’t take (steal) something from someone else in the first place. More explicit yet is the tenth commandment: “You shall not covet…anything that is your neighbor’s.” God’s commands make it clear that specific people own specific property. But why is violating that right such a big deal that it gets mentioned twice in God’s top ten commands?
It’s All God’s Anyways
“In the beginning, God created…” — well, everything. Creation ensures eternal ownership. It’s all His. “The earth is the Lords, and all that is in it.” (Ps. 24:1) I’ve actually heard this truth cited in opposition to our right to private property! The claim goes something like this: “Because God owns everything anyways, we have no right to claim ownership of His stuff. Therefore, we should redistribute property since it doesn’t really belong to us anyways.” What’s missing from this logical fallacy is this: Because God owns everything, it is His to distribute as He sees fit — even if he chooses to give it to me or you or Warren Buffett.
What socialists are really saying when they talk about redistributing private property is that they don’t approve of the way God has distributed His own stuff. They will become like God and redistribute his wealth for Him in a “fairer” fashion. Think of Kelo vs. New London (2005) for a practical Supreme Court application. You may recall in that case that the city of New London claimed the right of eminent domain to take property from one owner and give it to another because they did not approve of the way the original owner chose to use the land that was rightly his. How very godlike of them. Incredibly, the Supreme Court wrongly claimed the city had a right to do just that.
Begin at the Beginning
God gave clear instructions about private property when He created people. My condensed version here: “Let Us make man in our image… let them have dominion over [everything]…. Have dominion over [everything].” (Genesis 1:26-28) To have dominion means to take charge of, to have ownership for. We cannot realistically be held responsible for the care of something when we do not ultimately have ownership of it. One of the core reasons God created us was to possess and use private property as He has entrusted it to us as our Creator. We own it as His stewards, with responsibilities to Him to be sure, but also with divinely ordained rights to protect our sacred duty.
Our Nation’s Founders Believed It
Our Declaration of Independence, often called the heart of our nation’s founding, spoke of certain “unalienable rights.” It did so to distinguish between those rights granted by “Nature’s God” and those that may be arbitrarily bestowed by others. “We hold these truths to be self-evident…that [men] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We may struggle to understand the meaning of the pursuit of happiness as they did in that day. To them, it clearly included Locke’s idea of life, liberty, and estate (property), though it expanded beyond it, as well. A man invests his life in the context of liberty. When he does so, he receives a return on his investment, often in the form of property of some kind, whether physical, intellectual, or emotional satisfaction. Thus, in a very real way, private property is the fruit or reward of life. It represent the sum of how we freely choose to spend our seconds on earth.Take our right to private property, and you have rendered our right to liberty pointless and our right to life hollow and unrewarding. When we steal property, whether by the barrel of a gun or through government mandate, we take life. That understanding should change everything.
So How Does Faith Affect Private Property?
Because God created everything, God owns everything. He has given it to humanity in general as stewards of His creation. He distributes it to individuals in particular by His providential graces and in keeping with His own universal laws. Hence his commands to respect each individual’s right to private property. When we fail to do so, we are, in fact, violating the first commandment to have no other Gods before Him. When we seek to redistribute property as we see fit, we elevate ourselves and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator.