Where Do Our Rights Come From?

by Derrick G. Jeter

How does a government exercise enough power and authority to prevent the twin evils to human liberty: anarchy and tyranny?
The answer to this question is a complex one and often difficult to reach. But it’s an important one, for the answer will either lead to more individual freedom or more state control over the individual. When wrestling with this question we must must first wrestle with at least three additional questions: What is the law? What is justice? And where do our rights come from?
The Declaration articulates “certain unalienable rights” granted by God, including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This language wasn’t original with Jefferson. He got it from George Mason, who wrote in the Virginia Bill of Rights, which as adopted in June 1776:
all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights . . . namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety. [1]
Jefferson could have also listed in the Declaration the right of conscience or religious liberty, the right of property, and the right to govern ourselves as a sovereign people. These are fundamental rights, not just anything we want to claim as a right. We may want better healthcare, but that doesn’t mean we have a “unalienable” right to it.
But are these “unalienable” rights biblical? Technically speaking, we have no rights because God isn’t obligated to grant us anything, including life. But once life is given, the Lord treats it as a inviolable right—at least as far as our relationships with other people. We can’t claim even the right to life before God because every action He takes is just and in keeping with His righteous character. But we can claim this right before men—“You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). Thomas Jefferson observed that “the God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.” [2] We were made in the image of God, according to Genesis 1:27, and one of God’s attributes is freedom. As image bearers we too were meant to be free, just as Paul stated in Galatians 5:1: “It was for freedom that Christ set us free.” But also as image bearers we are given the privilege to pursue the purpose for our lives—to discover and attempt to live out that which God made us for. That is, pursuing happiness. The right of property is found in Exodus 20:15, 17. The right of conscience is articulated by Peter and the apostles in Acts 5:29. And the right of self-governance is seen in the words of wisdom in Proverbs 8:15–16.
It seems pretty clear that our basic rights come from God. But somewhere along the way our leaders forgot this and now think they walk the halls of heaven, not just the halls of congress. Listen to this from Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, speaking about the healthcare bill a day before its passage in the senate.
What this [senate healthcare] bill does is we finally take that step, as our leader said earlier, we take that step from healthcare as a privilege to healthcare as an inalienable right of every singe American citizen. . . . Like every right that we’ve ever passed for the American people we revisit it later on to enhance and build on those rights. And we will do that here, surely, that we will enhance and build on this, but we have made that first and most important step: to make it a right rather than a privilege. [3]
Really? Does the government have the authority to turn a mere “privilege” into an “unalienable right”? If this were true then this prediction would also come true: “Once the government becomes the supplier of people’s needs, there is no limit to the needs that will be claimed as a basic right.” [4] The fact is, a state big enough to give you rights is big enough to take those rights away.
Constitutional scholar, Matthew Spalding doesn’t think states have the authority to grant rights.
Rights are those things that are self-evident from an understanding of man and his place in the nature of things. . . . These rights are not the creation or indulgence of government. While additional positive or civil rights (more correctly termed civil liberties) are enshrined in the Constitution—like the rights of free speech and freedom of the press recognized in the Bill of Rights—and Congress can legislatively create “civil” rights, natural rights preexist the institution of government, precisely because they arise out of the natural equality that is the essence of human liberty. Congress (or more likely today, the courts) can’t just make up rights as it sees fit. Nor can these rights be taken away—they are “unalienable” and can’t be given over (alienated) to someone else. In the end, it is this sense of rights that ultimately limits government. [5]
Or as Jefferson put it elsewhere, our “rights [are] derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of [our] Chief Magistrate.” [6]
These rights “derived from the laws of nature” are rooted in “nature’s God [which] of course presupposes the existence of a God, the moral ruler of the universe, and a rule of right and wrong, of just and unjust, binding upon man, preceding all institutions of human society and of government.” [7]
Answering the difficult question of finding the balance between anarchy and tyranny is easier if we keep this timeless truth in mind: a proper view of the law as an instrument of justice to protect the rights granted and guaranteed by God is the only sure means of preserving liberty, for it is the only sure means of limiting state sovereignty.
[1] Virginia Bill of Rights, sec. 1, June 12, 1776.
[2] Thomas Jefferson, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” in Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1984), 122.
[3] Tom Harkin, December 23, 2009, http://www.c-span.org/Watch/Media/2009/12/23/HP/A/27716/Senate+Democrats+Press+Conference+on+Health+Care+Legislation.aspx, starting at 13:35, emphasis mine (accessed March 15, 2010).
[4] Lawrence Auster, “Big-Government Conservatism Comes to ALEC,” August 6, 2001, Newmax, http://archive.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2001/8/6/22008.shtml (accessed November 4, 2010).
[5] Matthew Spalding, We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2009), 43–44.
[6] Jefferson, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” in Writings, 121.
[7] John Quincy Adams, The Jubilee of the Constitution (New York: Published by Samuel Coleman, 1839), 13–14.