The Nature of Citizenship

In recent weeks, there has been a lot of talk about the Constitution’s requirement that a U.S. president be a “natural born citizen.” This conversation is nothing new. The most prominent target in recent years has been Barack Obama. The latest variant of the topic centers around Ted Cruz. He has faced this before, even prior to his presidential campaign. The issue had receded, however, until other candidates found it convenient as a tool to halt his recent rise in the polls.

One can see the appeal of this “natural born citizen” line of attack. Most importantly, the attack takes out an opponent without ever having to win on any substantive political issues. You win by simply disqualifying the opponent. Who wouldn’t love to just be ushered into a nomination, or better yet, into the Oval Office itself simply because your opponent is disqualified from the contest? (What an especially convenient attack for those low on substance.) The other appeal is that this strategic victory can be achieved while claiming the ultimate mantle of the American political experience: Constitutional Defender. The attacker can righteously proclaim that they are upholding the intent of the Founders, and thus, the liberties that the Founders intended to protect through the Constitution. (Yet, it is ironic that the “natural born citizen” qualification so often is a line of attack utilized by those that show little genuine respect for or knowledge of the Constitution and little inclination to defend it.)

As a basic qualification for the presidency, the answer to the question of whether a candidate is a “natural born citizen” is essential. The great problem with this line of attack is that it has been used in circumstances in which it is utter nonsense. I can see the intellectual temptation of wanting to apply the interpretation of “natural born citizen” at the time of founding to today. The problem is that you are trying to attach an old definition to a type of classification (citizenship, and specifically “natural born citizen”) that has steadily changed throughout the years, with the general trend toward expansion of its scope. The term “natural born citizen,” then as now, refers to people that became citizens simply by the nature of their births. Confusion comes in because those to which that designation applies can and has changed by legislation from Congress.

Some people desperately persist, however, by questioning how it could be that we let Congress change the definition of “natural born citizen” when we would not accept them changing the definition of freedom of speech or religion, the right of assembly, or to keep and bear arms. Well, quite simply, Congress was granted explicit authority to regulate citizenship, which has always included the authority to legislate those that are naturalized citizens at birth, but Congress was NOT granted ANY such authority in relation to the other rights. There was no restriction placed on those that Congress could grant naturalization at birth. Thus, people every day are considered natural born citizens because the facts of their births, and nothing else, made them citizens. This was the case for Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Donald Trump, every other current candidate in the presidential race, and even current President Barack Obama.

A simple comparison of the basic characteristics of the various rights discussed in the Constitution reveals a fundamental distinction: some are natural rights while one is civil. Rights to speech, religion, assembly, self-protection, these are rights that you have because of the fact of your existence without depending on the existence of a government. If you were born in the middle of nowhere without any civil codes, you would have those rights because they are natural rights. You naturally have rights to protect yourself, believe what you want, say what you want, and gather with whomever you want wherever you want, assuming, of course, that you are not intruding on the personal space, safety, etc. of others. Now, at some point you might meet up with others, exercise your respective rights of assembly, and declare one to another that you respect each other’s rights so as to keep the peace between you. You might then organize a government to ensure that all parties actually respect those rights. The processes by which this government is created and acts in turn create all sorts of civil rights.

We are fortunate to have such a government that was established through our Constitution. However, that document did not create our natural rights; it simply laid out an agreement for their universal protection. Citizenship, however, was a right that the Congress was given explicit permission to legislate since citizenship is not a right that you would be born into if you were born in a place without civil codes. Citizenship is not a natural right; it is, in fact, the first CIVIL right. It is granted to you by the agreement that you reach with those that you encounter in the wilderness. Citizenship is your membership to the club, and the qualifications of that membership are defined by the club. Therefore, it is obvious that the government has the right and responsibility to decide who is a member by birth and who is not.

Ted Cruz is a member in longstanding since he was a member from the very second of his birth. Now that we’ve cleared that up, we can discuss the real substantive challenges this nation faces, such as intrusions on our natural and civil rights, the economy, terrorism, and energy independence, just to name a few. Why are The Donald and his lemmings ducking and weaving? You gotta wonder, or isn’t it obvious?

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