If Human Rights Aren’t God-Given, Then You Have None

By Clint Roberts Published on February 27, 2024

If I were to say that I think our most basic rights are granted by God, would you think of me as an “extremist”? Probably not. You may be surprised to learn that some people in places of influence today would.

A few days ago an article appeared in Politico warning the world of the dangers of Christian extremists wanting to take over and rule America as an oppressive theocracy — or something like that. The writers are well-aware that if you put the words “Trump” and “Christian Nationalism” in a headline, the sweaty palms of triggered readers can’t click on it fast enough.

The article put in scare quotes a principle advocated by an influential conservative group (prepare to be shocked): “Freedom is defined by God, not man.” They referenced former Secretary of State — and wild-eyed Christian zealot — Mike Pompeo, who in 2019 formed a commission to define human rights in accordance with “natural law and natural rights.” (I’ll give you a moment to collect yourself.)

Also in scare quotes are the words of a close pal of Trump who heads a conservative think tank. He actually once wrote in Newsweek that the American view of “rights and duties is that they are understood to come from God.” UN. BE. LIEVEABLE, am I right?

Later one of these Politico writers went on a cable news show to echo her dire warnings. There she explained that these people aren’t true Christians but are instead “Christian nationalists.” And in clarifying the distinction between those two she said of the latter group,

they believe that our rights as Americans and as all human beings do not come from any Earthly authority. They don’t come from Congress, from the Supreme Court, they come from God.

Whoa. What kind of religious nutjob would believe a thing like that?

What Even ARE “Human Rights”?

OK I’ll set the sarcasm aside and genuinely ask: What do we really mean when we refer to human rights? We hear the term often enough. Politicians say things like “Healthcare is a human right” (which for some reason I always automatically say in the voice of Bernie Sanders). We have international campaigns for human rights, commissions for human rights, universal declarations of human rights, and so on. But what are they exactly?

Rights are always seen as good things. They are guarantees of protections or entitlements. Not everyone in every place enjoys the same ones. Government rulers exercise the crucial power of granting various rights, or revoking them, or protecting them. Or not. Americans love to proclaim our rights, including ones we make up on the spot sometimes. I’ve heard people appeal to all sorts of rights they thought they had. Some of us think we have a right not to hear any opinion that disagrees with our own.

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But rights aren’t subjective. I don’t suddenly possess a right to something just because I’d like it or by proclaiming it. Rights are given by a proper authority. The rights that a government gives to her citizens are called “civil rights.” These range from the things spelled out in the 1st Amendment to the familiar rights we’ve all heard arresting officers read — hopefully only in movies.

If I travel to Uganda and am arrested for having a gun, I can’t appeal to my 2nd Amendment right there. It doesn’t apply there. That government has its own system of laws, and it grants (or doesn’t) whatever specific rights it has decided.

“Human rights” are seen as universal, transcending all governments. They are seen as the most basic ones — like the right to your very life. A dictator may decide that one ethnic group gets the legal right to exterminate another, but the rest of the world will condemn that as a violation of human rights. Such rights are thought to protect all people by virtue of their humanity, despite their gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, culture, abilities, etc.

What Authority Grants Human Rights?

I would love to ask the miseducated fools (pardon my bluntness) who wrote the Politico article a few very simple questions: Do you believe in human rights or only civil rights that governments grant? If you believe in human rights, by whom are those given? If a government revokes the rights of a group of people such that their lives are no longer protected, is that government violating some set of greater, higher rights of those people? Why should I believe they possess those rights?

Not long ago a video went viral of a TED talk by Israeli historian Yuval Harari, who is an atheist materialist. He believes in the physical world only, period. Thus human rights, he says, are just made up. We invented them. After all, he reasons,

Take a human being, cut him open, look inside, you will find the heart, the kidneys, neurons, hormones, DNA, but you won’t find any rights.

Materialists are comically reductive like that. They tend to make these silly category errors. It’s the old analogy of the guy who lost his keys walking home at night who insists on looking for them only under the street lamp, not because he likely lost them there, but because that’s where the light is, after all.

But there’s a point to be recognized in Harari’s talk, and I at least appreciate the brutal honesty of his admission, which follows inescapably from his worldview. If there is no God, no higher Law, no ultimate purpose in the universe, then of course human rights refer to nothing at all. They are a nice idea, but a fiction.

Thomas Jefferson: Christian Extremist?

The astounding ignorance of so many in elite media makes me wonder what they would write about prominent people in history if they were sent back in time. Imagine the clickbait headline they would concoct after Ben Franklin wrote “Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the Laws of God and nature.” Alexander Hamilton’s words would be in giant scare quotes: “The fundamental source of all your errors and false reasoning is a total ignorance of the natural rights of mankind. … Natural liberty is a gift of the beneficent Creator.”

Would they smear John Adams as a theocrat for saying that our right to liberty “is derived from our Maker?” Maybe Jefferson would be called an extremist for this:

And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis — a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?

If they wrote in the 1960s Civil Rights era, would they have warned us against the dangerous “Christian Nationalist” Martin Luther King, Jr. for his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”? There King traces “Natural Law” from the Bible and the Greeks onward, referencing St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, quoting various later theologians — all to bolster the claim that the rights he is advocating for are “God-given.” The letter is so explicit on these matters that a Politico writer today would probably call him a “white supremacist.”

You’d Better Hope Your Rulers Believe Your Rights are From God

The American Framers saw the role of political leaders as protectors of rights already possessed by the people. I don’t praise them or any government since for “giving” me basic human rights. Those were never theirs to give or take away. I applaud the governments that make it a priority to protect those rights. I fault governments that fail to do so, and I abominate ones that brazenly trample those rights.

Speaking of that, can you guess what kinds of governments have the best and worst records when it comes to this? We see what our founders believed about rights and how it formed the foundation of their written contracts and system of laws. And we can see how that’s gone overall.

There have been some other governments founded since then which did not believe in any of that stuff that the Politico article wants you to fear. Nothing about God or Natural Law. In fact, they were formally and officially atheist, and sought to drive the influence of the churches out of the national picture entirely — the ultimate “separation of church and state.” They ruled over places like China, Cambodia, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and the Soviet Union. I’ll let you check your history books (or consult Google) to analyze their respective achievements in the area of human rights.

Meanwhile, if you value such rights, thank God for them. He’s the One that gave them to you and all of the rest of us. People who violate them will answer to Him for it.


Clint Roberts is an adjunct professor at the University of Oklahoma and Southern Nazarene University.

Copyright 2024 Fallacy Fight Club. Republished with permission.

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