Human Rights: Where do they come from?

People, especially politicians, love to talk about human rights, to the point where the phrase has almost become trite. That is annoying, as human rights are a very specific thing, not just a slogan to stick onto a politician’s latest totalitarian attempt to seize more power.

To correct this, we need a good definition of human rights. A right is, quite simply, that to which one is entitled, by virtue of law or morality. Human rights are, by extension, that to which we are entitled in virtue of being human. This raises the question of what’s so special about humans, that we’re entitled to special treatment. There are, in the modern world, two schools of thought as to what grounds our rights.

The first school of thought is the French school of thought where rights come from the simple assertion that they exist (see Article I of  the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen) and the idea of a social contract. This school of thought came to fruition in the French Revolution, which replaced God with reason as the supreme authority. That was a very bad idea. Article VI lays the groundwork for mob rule, in that it states that the law is the expression of the general will. This allows for de facto mob rule, in that it makes it the law’s purpose to express the will of the majority of the people.

The other school of thought is the American school of thought, in which our rights come from God, as seen in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. This is why the Founders refer to them as inalienable rights, because government cannot restrict them without God’s permission (as in the case of capital punishment), because they are given by God, who is a higher authority than government. All humans are created in God’s image; this is made clear in Genesis 1:26-27:

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

This is the correct grounding for human rights; there are certain things which are not to be done to one who bears God’s image, and God is the one who makes that determination. As those who bear God’s image, human beings are rightly entitled to treatment befitting an image bearer. Thus, a human being has a right to not be, for example, murdered; because murder is not an appropriate way to treat one who bears the image of God. We know it is inappropriate to murder an image bearer of God, because God said don’t do it.
The Founders referred to these as inalienable rights because they cannot be removed by government. To do so would be for the government to (try to) set itself above God. Only God has the authority to decide if and when these rights may be forfeited by an individual. Likewise, only God can grant a human right. Governments may grant civil rights to their citizens, that to which they are entitled as citizens of a country, but human rights are God’s exclusive domain.

The only human rights we should recognize are those that can be established from scripture, because that is God’s word. When God lays out the proper way to treat other human beings, he is giving us all a right to that treatment. Just because someone takes a page from the French playbook and makes up a new human right doesn’t mean they have it. Only God has the authority to grant or take away human rights.

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