Human Rights: Where They Originate and Why It Really Matters Right Now

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As Americans, we take human rights for granted. We expect them to always be there, similar to the air we breathe, the food we eat or the water we drink. But as our collective civil rights-crushing COVID-19 experience has reminded us, we must never take our civil liberties for granted. Human rights are critically important because, among other benefits, they recognize the dignity of each person, restrain oppressors and lead to greater personal freedom and human flourishing. History confirms this.  Even today, more than half of the world’s population suffers under regimes where the most basic freedoms are systematically denied, or under governments too weak or unwilling to protect civil liberties, especially in the context of ethnic conflict.

But why do human rights even exist?  What is their origin? Are they a merely a self-evident part of being human?  No, but here’s a hint. It’s certainly not because our thinking has naturally evolved or progressed to a near-utopian plateau of human advancement in the past 300 years.  Intelligent and educated people can be as incredibly cruel as they can be genuinely kind. Simply put, the necessary foundation of all civil rights is found, not so much in recent human developments, as it is anchored in ancient literature, thousands of years old. Surprised? Indeed, it is deeply embedded in the Judeo-Christian worldview embodied in the Holy Scriptures of the old and new testaments. 

It is an undeniable fact that the only solid and sure foundation for any stable concept of human dignity or human rights is the basic reality that each person is created in the image of God—the imago Dei. Without the imago Dei, man is just another animal, though certainly the most intelligent of all animals.  If you take the imago Dei out of the picture, raw exertions of power and the brutal law of the jungle would be the primary driving forces governing human relationships—a macabre “survival of the fittest” disaster. The strong and powerful would prey on, abuse and kill the powerless, without restraint. 

Indeed, most of human history bears this deadly and dysfunctional Darwinian model out. But the law of the jungle is nowhere near a secure foundation for civil rights, but certainly foments the very opposite: a justification for oppression and tyranny of the weak by the “fittest” among us.  We see this today in the bloody business of abortion, where weak and innocent babies are callously killed for convenience. 

Thankfully, the Judeo-Christian worldview has uniquely civilized the world, and ushered in an era where civil rights became actually possible. Why?  Because Christianity and the imago Dei uniquely elevate all people, rich or poor, weak or strong, beautiful or ugly, black or white, born or unborn. It does so by teaching that each individual has objective intrinsic dignity.  Each person is unique and valuable.  That each person has ultimate dignity and worth as the pinnacle of God’s creation, made in His image. And, because we are made in His image, all are deserving of love and respect.    

As the Declaration of Independence acknowledges, in light of the imago Dei, the legitimate role of government is to protect fundamental God-given individual liberties, not trample them:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….”

This respect for all persons inherent in reality of the imago Dei led to the development of human rights, especially during the past three hundred years. Human rights are grounded in the idea that Government acknowledges and protects the inherent dignity of the individual and therefore allows each of us to think our own thoughts, believe our own beliefs, say our own words, own our own property, practice our faith according to conscience, and protest when the government gets it wrong, which it often does.  

Earlier this summer, the U.S. State Department’s “Commission on Unalienable Rights” released a draft report.  The report openly acknowledged that “Protestant Christianity, widely practiced by the citizenry at the time [of the founders], was infused with the beautiful Biblical teachings that every human being is imbued with dignity and bears responsibilities toward fellow human beings, because each is made in the image of God.” 

True. And this basic fact is acknowledged by believers and atheists alike.  Atheist philosopher John Gray, for example, has written that modern politics, with its idea of human rights, “is a chapter in the history of religion,” specifically Christianity. Another atheist philosopher, Luc Ferry, in his book A Brief History of Thought, observes that it is to the belief about the image of God that the “west owes its entire democratic inheritance.”

By comparison, materialism, secular humanism and atheism (including Marxism and socialism), offer no foundation or objective basis whatsoever for ethics, morality or human rights.  Critical Race Theory’s Marxist hyper-focus on the “oppressor” and the “oppressed” finds no basis in atheism, but steals its faux moral authority from Judeo-Christian concepts of individual dignity and justice. Legal positivism, for example, in a “might makes right” fashion locates the law and morality not in anything objective, but rather in what the elites in power subjectively determine what morality or law are and, via incessant propaganda, coercively impose upon everyone else. Without God, human rights essentially become whatever powerful and elite government bureaucrats declare they are.  

These bureaucrats, including legislators and judges, may be charitable in their determinations or they may be complete scoundrels—subjectively preferring some rights above others or creating new fake rights that do not approach deserving such honors or recognition.  Biblical Christians, however, believe that the law in general, and civil rights in particular, are fixed, uniform and universal truths which are objective to us—not based on subjective feelings. This objectivity alone uniquely gives stability to human rights and the enduring preservation of freedom. 

What God give us lasts forever. However, what the state gives, the state may suppress or take away. Indeed, the civil liberties that God in His grace so mercifully gives to us are not superficial or fleeting; they are solid, objective and enduring. Furthermore, what has been given to us by God should not be taken from us by mere men. That is why our wise Founders believed that these rights were unalienable. Because they were God-given, the government must not attempt to take them away from us.

A prime example of the profound problem of grounding human rights in variable subjective human feelings, fears, preferences or power-plays, as opposed to basing them in objective truth and reality, has been highlighted by COVID-19. Many of us have watched in horror as elite leftist secular-humanist governors, because the greatly overblown threat of the virus (with a 99.96 percent survival rate) and the irrational fear generated therefrom, have proven themselves more than willing to ignore and trample important basic human rights including the free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, rights of assembly and basic private property rights. 

Unfortunately, they have been aided and abetted by constitutionally confused judges, who should have rather been the guardians of our fundamental rights, not suppressors of liberty and apologists for government overreach.  But, there is no pandemic exception the First Amendment, nor to the other fundamental human rights guaranteed to us by the U.S. Constitution. And, if we hope to endure as a free people, we must never allow the government to so arbitrarily and coercively suppress our human rights ever again.  

Ironically, Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett is currently being savagely and foolishly attacked precisely because she is committed to the only worldview that makes authentic civil rights possible. Not only are human rights impossible without the Judeo-Christian worldview; the very survival of our democratic republic depends on the endurance of this objective belief system, especially the imago Dei, as the sole and certain foundation and source of all human dignity and human freedoms.  Amazingly, this is something upon which both honest atheists and thoughtful Christians can actually agree.

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Dean Broyles

Dean Broyles is a constitutional attorney, admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States, who serves as the President of The National Center For Law & Policy (NCLP), an organization fighting to promote and defend religious freedom.

Copyright ©2020 The National Center For Law & Policy. Reprinted with permission.

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