A Biblical and Historical Perspective on the Concept of Rights

A Biblical and Historical Perspective on the Concept of Rights

I pray that you all are enjoying this Memorial Day weekend, where we remember the sacrifice that patriots have given in fighting and dying for the freedoms that we enjoy. Thank you, God, for those who have died for our rights to free exercise of religion and allowing us to share the true hope of the greatest sacrifice ever… the Lord Jesus Christ in laying down His life for us.

Taken from Stephen and Sarah’s book, Navigating Public Schools, chapter 6.

I have heard countless Christians say that “one of the greatest lies one can believe is that we even have rights.” Let’s make an important distinction between rights before God and rights in relation to other humans. It is only by God’s grace (because Jesus Christ shed His blood for us) that we can have any relationship at all with Him, so in that sense we do not have intrinsic “rights” before God. However, the Bible does outline appropriate and inappropriate behavior toward other human beings. When we clarify “right” living among humans, we are essentially defining “rights.” Do we have a Biblically-based moral right that says people cannot walk into our homes and take what they want? Yes, the Bible outlines in the Ten Commandments that we should not steal from one another. Do we have a Biblically-based moral right that prevents one person shooting another in the midst of an argument? Yes, the Bible says not to murder. There are countless guidelines presented in the Bible for appropriate treatment of other human beings. When founding documents discuss our rights, they are not referring to rights before God, but our God-given rights as citizens of planet Earth.

Let’s clarify how the Founders viewed these human rights. First, and very importantly, the Founders believed that our rights come from God. As the Declaration of Independence famously states: “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.” This is perhaps the most important feature of our government and is the exact point that separated us from all other countries at the time of our founding. All other governments at the time of the Declaration believed that their citizens’ rights came from those running the government. In the case of the monarchies, the king or queen had ultimate power. They generally believed that God had bestowed on them a divine right to rule. Hence, according to those governments, the rights of the people came from the government. The United States was the first government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”[1] It was the first government whose very founding documents stated that every human being has intrinsic value and possesses God-given rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

One can trace the radical (for the time) concept that our rights come directly from God to the earliest founding documents of our country. Founding documents often refer to these rights as “natural rights.” In The Rights of the Colonists, Samuel Adams refers to our natural rights and the fact that it is the chief aim of civil government to protect those natural rights: “In short, it is the greatest absurdity to suppose it in the power of one, or any number of men, at the entering into society, to renounce their essential natural rights, or the means of preserving those rights; when the grand end of civil government, from the very nature of its institution, is for the support, protection, and defence of those very rights; the principal of which, as is before observed, are Life, Liberty, and Property.”[2]

Adams makes the point that it is unreasonable to expect citizens to renounce their natural rights when entering into a society, when it is the job of the society (government) to protect those natural rights. He concludes that this is illogical by the very definition of our form of government.

Second, the Founders believed that the moral foundation of our country and our concept of government was rooted in Christianity. Therefore, our rights (in terms of appropriate treatment of human beings) should be learned from the Bible. To quote The Rights of the Colonists again: “These [rights] may be best understood by reading and carefully studying the institutes of the great Law Giver and Head of the Christian Church, which are to be found clearly written and promulgated in the New Testament.”

From the “Constitution State” of Connecticut, we see the roots of this same principle in the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1639), a precursor to our federal Constitution: “[W]ell knowing when a people are gathered together, the word of God requires that to maintain the peace and union of such a people, there should be an orderly and decent government established according to God.”

According to this statement, our society should base its moral standards on the “word of God,” and reflect an “orderly and decent government” by God’s standards. The rights that the Founders wrote about were not given by a vague concept of God. The Founders were clearly talking about rights based on Biblical teaching and Christian morality. John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, referred to Christian principles as the foundation of government: “[T]he Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact on the foundation of the Redeemer’s mission upon earth. …[and] laid the cornerstone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity.”

As noted before, in William Penn’s Frame of Government of Pennsylvania (1682), Penn clarifies the two main goals of government from a Biblical perspective, to punish evil-doers and protect citizens (referencing Romans 13): “Let every soul be subject to the higher powers; for there is no power but of God . . . This settles the divine right of government beyond exception, and that for two ends: first, to terrify evildoers; secondly, to cherish those that do well; which gives government a life beyond corruption and makes it as durable in the world, as good men shall be. So that government seems to me a part of religion itself, a thing sacred in its institution and end.”

Penn also made the connection that government is intertwined with religion at some level, because government will always reflect someone’s morality. It is just a matter of which religion is reflected—secular humanist, Christian, Eastern, etc. In the case of the Founders, the laws were intentionally aligned with a Christian worldview.

Third, the Founders felt that it was the duty of government to protect these God-ordained rights of individuals and if the government was not passing laws in accordance with that aim, it was the duty of the people to pursue a new form of government that would protect them. The preamble of the Declaration of Independence clearly declares: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…”

People frequently question what was meant by the “Laws of Nature” and of “Nature’s God.” Some revisionists of history would have us believe that these are mere secular phrases and not Biblical ideas. This is simply false. The famous English lawyer and jurist William Blackstone was hugely influential on Thomas Jefferson and the framing of our way of government. Blackstone defines these phrases as follows: “Thus when the Supreme Being formed the universe, and created matter out of nothing, he impressed certain principles upon that matter, from which it can never depart, and without which it would cease to be . . . This law of nature, being coeval [coexistent] with mankind and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other . . . Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation [from Scripture], depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered [permitted] to contradict these.”[3]

Jefferson, a lawyer himself, said that lawyers cite Blackstone like Muslims quote the Koran.[4] Blackstone was defining the secular terms for what theologians teach from a Biblical worldview in regards to General Revelation and Specific Revelation. His point is that no human laws should ever contradict any laws from God. This point is precisely what was meant in the preamble of our Declaration and it was held consistently throughout the forming of our government. For example, John Jay, the original Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, said this, “The Bible is the best of all books, for it is the word of God and teaches us the way to be happy in this world and in the next. Continue therefore to read it and to regulate your life by its precepts.”[5]

In addition, President John Adams said this, “Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law book and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited . . . What a Eutopia, what a Paradise would this region be. I have examined all [religions] . . . and the result is that the Bible is the best Book in the world. It contains more of my little philosophy than all the libraries I have seen.”[6]

Due to the long history of abuse of power by human governments, particularly by rulers who assumed almost God-like power over their subjects, the Founders were radical and unbending in their articulation that all citizens have God-given rights that their government is entrusted to protect. Their conclusion was that they ought not to tolerate a tyrannical government that abuses its citizens by denying them the rights that they have been given by God.

To summarize, we do not have rights before God, but God gives us moral direction through the Bible that clarifies the rights we have between human beings. The point is that our rights are given to us by God. The American Founders voiced this radical (for their time) idea that all human beings have rights given to them by God, and that the government’s job is to protect those God-given rights. These God-given rights clarify how we should be treated by others, including by our government. When government places itself above God, or removes accountability to Him, then it will tend towards corruption and abuse. The Founders understood this danger, and it is why they formed a constitutional republic, “under God”; this form of government was intended to protect American citizens from a future government that rejected God-ordained rights for its people.

[1] Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 1863

[2] Samuel Adams, The Rights of the Colonists, 1772

[3] Sir Williams Blackstone, Of The Nature of Laws in General, Commentaries, 1753

[4] David Barton, Original Intent, 2013

[5] Dreisbach and Hall, Faith and the Founders of the American Republic, Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 149

[6] Stephen McDowell, Building Godly Nations, Providence Foundation, 2004, p. 69


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