A thought provoking exploration of how the principals of freedom and opportunity enshrined – if in rhetoric only – in the Constitution have gradually expanded to encompass broader swaths of society.
The book traces the evolutions of rights held or implied in the United States’ foundational documents and how they have been affected by religious thought in their application. Author John Jeffrey is a Bishop, serving as a pastor near Louisville, Kentucky. Jeffrey brings a unique perspective as a theologian (and a Southerner) to this look at how historical trends continue to carry ramifications for contemporary American society, particularly as the country braces itself for an inevitably contentious Supreme Court nomination process. A key tension that Jeffrey explores is the porous distinction between rights and preferences, including discussion of the contemporary struggles that continue to rage over hot-button issues like abortion and gay rights.
A RIGHT TO EXIST offers a comprehensive primer especially for readers who are first wading into the waters of learning about American history and seeking greater understanding of their own philosophy regarding the ongoing issues of liberty and the tensions between society and the individual. Jeffrey is also not shy to project his theological perspective on these issues with authority and confidence, providing useful insight for secular and devout readers alike.
If there is a primary criticism here, it may lay in the sheer sweep of what Jeffrey has attempted. The broad scope of his analysis – ranging from the country’s founding through the Civil War, Civil Rights Movement, and into the present day – leads him to make large, sometimes jarring, leaps backward and forward in his timeline. Extending as far as in-depth discussion of the rights of animals, the book may have been helpfully streamlined with a tighter focus on a particular eras or segment of the populace. Jeffrey has enough material for a series here, potentially overwhelming lay readers while providing too general an overview for those who are already well read in American history.
A final chapter focusing on the rights of the Jewish people to exist also falls short of offering a satisfying synthesis to conclude the author’s overview. Perhaps that lack of a conclusive ending is intentional – signaling that the debate will only continue to be waged, for future generations to continue adding their voices.
There is much to relish in this examination of the turbulent forces of American history and politics and their impact on marginalized pockets of the population.