Thursday, August 06, 2020

Universal Human Rights: The Christian Legacy

Okay, let me say it right away:

There is only one reason we have human rights: God.

And it was a Christian who first discovered this and explained it to the world.


Now, you might ask yourself this: if this is true, why was I not told? Why didn’t my teachers in high school, my instructors at college or my professors in my undergraduate explain this? Or if it’s true, then why is not every Christian trumpeting the fact from the rooftops?

The answer’s simple: Christians don’t know it, and other people don’t want to hear it.

Why don’t Christians know it? Nobody told them. If you go to a college or university today, you’ll likely be told that human rights are some sort of accidental byproduct of “natural law” theory, or “the social contract”. But you won’t probably be told the truth. You’ll be told that they had something to do with Gutenberg and his printing press, something to do with the Protestant Reformation, something to do with John Locke’s essay The Rights of Man, something to do with the revolutions of the Eighteenth Century and perhaps something to do with the United Nations …

But it all just doesn’t add up. Why should some dead dogma from the Enlightenment Period be taken as binding on modern people? By what line of logic do we owe anything to anyone anymore, let alone some set of absolute rights? How do we know such things even exist? If there’s any reality in all this, shouldn’t someone somewhere have a reasonable explanation?

Ah, but they do. We know precisely how human rights came about. They came from a Christian philosopher named John Locke, who spelled them out based precisely on Christian reasons. And since Locke, nobody has been able to do that, so we’re all riding his coattails.

So why don’t secular philosophers and historians just tell us that? Well, they’re plenty smart enough to know it and they’ve studied enough to know it, but they also have an extreme prejudice against certain ideas. Chief of these is the idea that Christianity could contribute anything really important to the modern world — certainly nothing as vital as the concept of human rights. So they have a blind spot you could drive a truck through.

Hard to Believe?

Okay, examples: See celebrated feminist Mary Midgley mess up her account of Locke and toleration in Philosophy Now. See celebrated postcolonialist K.A. Appiah admit the Christian origins of rights in his essay, Liberal Education: The United States Example, 2007, and then bypass them as if they didn’t matter. Or see philosopher John Rawls’s attempt to whitewash “religion” out of moral philosophy altogether, in his introduction to the famous Political Liberalism, 1993, xxiii-xxix.

Such scholars know full well that Locke was a Christian arguing for Christian reasons. But their contention is that he might as well have been an atheist or a Zoroastrian, since his Christianity is not to be reckoned as any important part of the very important thing he gave us — the first and only grounded account of universal human rights.

Nonsense. Rubbish. Poppycock.

They’re all verifiably historically mistaken … and maybe downright dishonest. So let’s go back to the record and see what they are so concerned to overlook or purge out of the record.

Getting Rights Right

As a preliminary, we should note that it is true that the idea of some sort of “rights” is quite old. The Greeks, for example, had a weak version of it, as did the Romans, and so did the Medieval Period.

But all over the ancient world “rights” were primarily the possession of the rich and privileged. A king or emperor might be regarded as having “divine right” to the acclaim and tribute of his subjects. Citizens could have some rights, such as the right to vote in city councils. Sometimes the nobility had rights, such as freedom from property seizure. But in all such cases, these so-called rights were accorded to those who had the power to make them stick. And so for women, the poor, children, the disabled and non-citizens, rights were essentially unknown until the 17th century.

It was then that a totally new conception of rights first appeared: human rights. And that is the idea that a person can have rights not by virtue of gender, status, privilege or power, but merely by dint of the fact of being a human being. That was a very novel idea indeed; and immediately it was to come under attack. And since this concept, unlike earlier ones, was not directly tied to power and privilege, it was soon going to need to be defended against power and privilege. It would need to be shown to be legitimate, binding, necessary and obligatory, regardless of the vagaries of local power.

And this is what we have today. For our conception of human rights is not merely the banal claim that people who live in this or that country are due certain rights, nor that men who have power are due them, but that all people, regardless of their origins, assets, titles and powers, are due certain basic expressions of respect and provision for freedoms.

Human Rights Codes

We see this expressed in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), for example:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights … Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status … no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs … Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” (articles 1-3)
The assumption here is that such rights can be rightly asserted by any person, regardless of all the potential variables listed. The UN thinks that even the laws of sovereign nations cannot really supersede these rights. They are ultimate. They are non-negotiable. They are universal.

Of course, you’ll readily recognize some of the language here is borrowed. For example, “life, liberty and security” is a direct theft from “life, liberty and the right to the pursuit of happiness” as found in the American Declaration of Independence (1776), which reads:
“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 …”
Okay, here it’s only “men”. But you can see where the idea was going to go. It was going to end up with everyone getting rights. And you can find other similar language in all existing human rights codes. For example, France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) reads:
“The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.” (article 2)
Here, the origin of the rights is directly said to be the nation itself (article 3); however, this is clearly bunk if these rights are to be “natural and imprescriptible”. If they come from nature and can’t be taken away, then they self-evidently are not limited by the authority of nations, but rather reflect that nation’s response to a higher “natural” law.

I could give you a bunch more examples, but you get the idea. Did you notice, though, that all these codes depend on a single basic idea: that is, the idea that human beings themselves have particular rights? But we should ask: why do we think they do?”

After all, people differ in height, weight, age, gender, intelligence, creativity, skill, health, educability, looks (such as the color of skin, eyes and hair), experience, wisdom, status, genetic advantages, culture, citizenship, and history, just to start a list. How could all such people be “owed” any single set of rights?

And why would we think anyone deserved any at all?

Locking Down the Truth

The answer goes back to one single, universally-recognized source: John Locke. If you know a little about him, you’ll recognize his language in all human rights codes. This language comes from his essay, Of Civil Government, which reads:
“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours.” (II:6)
Decode it, and you find this: the reason that we are owed life, health, liberty and possessions is that we are all “the workmanship of the omnipotent” (i.e. of God).

My professors at university talked loud and windily about “natural law”, but never told me that Locke got his reasoning not from some perverse belief in a sacred “state of nature”, but rather from the essential fact that all human beings are property of God.

Not only that, but Locke went on to explain this at great length, and in so doing, provided the first and only rationale we have every had to believe in the reality of human rights.

He follows up on these ideas elsewhere, such as this passage from his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), in which he proves that human beings have a sacred right to freedom of conscience:
“… the apostle tells us, that, at the great day, when every one shall ‘receive according to his doings, the secrets of all hearts shall be laid open.’ The sentence shall be justified by the consciousness all persons shall have, that they themselves, in what bodies soever they appear, or what substances soever that consciousness adheres to, are the same that committed those actions, and deserve that punishment for them.” (27:26)
Now, I’d love to walk you through all that line-by-line, quoting all his writings. But in a blog, you probably don’t want to sit still for that, and I’m going on long enough already. So I’ll cut to the chase.

Here’s what Locke thought:

Step 1 — We were created by God. People are God’s property, not each other’s. This gives us a Right to Life and Health.

Step 2 — We are accountable to God. There is a “Great Day”, the Day of Judgment, upon which we shall give account of ourselves to God. Thus we have a Right of Conscience, and anyone who works against this is attempting to deprive God of what he requires of us.

Step 3 — Since we must give account, we must be allowed to have sufficient freedom to make our own choices about what we do. Thus we have a Right to Liberty.

Step 4 — Since the exercise of our liberty with a view to the fact that we will give account on the Day of Judgment is impossible unless we own things, we have also a Right to Property, through which we can act upon and approve our stewardship of Creation before God.

Anyone who interferes with these primary rights was, in Locke’s view, messing with God’s plans, just as he says clearly in his An Essay Concerning Toleration (1667):
“But if God … would have men forced to heaven, it must not be by the outward violence of the magistrate on men’s bodies, but the inward constraints of his own spirit on their minds, which are not to be wrought on by any human compulsion. The way to salvation not being any forced exterior performance, but the voluntary and secret choice of the mind, and it cannot be supposed that God would make use of any means which could not reach but would rather cross the attainment of the end. Nor can it be thought that men should give the magistrate a power to choose for them their way to salvation, which is too great to give away, if not impossible to part with.” (177)
Locke says that it’s out of the fact that we are all, individually the property of God and accountable to him that we have rights. And these rights can never legitimately be taken away by “magistrates” or indeed by any human authority. They are natural and universal and inalienable / imprescriptible because they are grounded in God and in his means of salvation.

The Short Take

Look, even if you don’t get all the stuff I’ve just talked about above, get this: without God — the God of the Jews and Christians — there IS no rationale for ANY human rights. In fact, we would never have had the concept of rights at all if it had not been for the fact that John Locke was a Christian … or at least, that he wrote for Christians, using their assumptions.

Since Locke, there has been no account of truly universal, permanent human rights. The rationale he provided is still the only rational explanation we have today. Without his particular pattern of reasoning, we have no reason even to believe that any universal human rights exist. We need to listen to Locke today.

So why don’t people today know this? Why don’t the many scholars and theorists of human rights — to say nothing of the citizens, politicians and lobby groups that depend on appeals to human rights every day — know this? For we’ve never needed a grounded account of human rights more. Today we’re all asking questions like, “How do we legitimize military intervention to save civilian populations about to be massacred?” Or “How do we know when a person should be allowed to choose to die?” Or “Do we have an obligation to provide public education or health care?” Or “What can we legitimately do to people with our biotechnologies?”

We find we cannot answer these questions because we have no longer any explanation of human rights that transcends national boundaries, no account that describes the purpose of human life, no account that explains what “rights” are truly inalienable and which are merely arbitrary, and no definition of how far we can go in invading the individual. Legally, we’re at sea. Politically, we’re perplexed. Morally, we’re blind.

So why aren’t we clear on human rights anymore? Because nobody any longer has any idea where such things come from, and what reasoning might actually ground them. We can’t even find the starting point, because we’ve forgotten where human rights come from in the first place.

They come only from God.

Only Christians have a grounded rationale for believing they exist at all.

And the secular world simply does not want to hear that.


  1. This post, my dear IC, was very helpful. As a Christian myself, I know that the source of Truth comes from God and through His Word the Bible; there, in the Word, unshakable Truth is found (whether acknowledged by the world -- or my government -- or not). But, I had not known of Locke and his statements cited in your post here -- where would I have heard it after all? Who would have copped to it? Philosophy has not been apart of my education, aside from having to live out what has been imposed upon society by those enacting policy and/or law (if even they actively act upon philosophical ideas, knowingly). So, once again I am thankful for Coming Untrue. Though I don't comment often (inane babbling filling the comments section isn't too productive coming from me), I think most (80-90%) of the posts have directly been helpful in weekly living out Christ and has been very helpful in conversations with others seaching and seeking what is true and "real." Thanks IC. Thanks Tom, and thanks you other writers too (not sure how many have added posts).
    With thanks again,

    1. How kind of you! We are just grateful for any usefulness the Lord allows us. It's all a privilege when He's in view.

  2. It's interesting to watch things change. Here in Canada, we "repatriated" our constitution in 1982. One of the founding documents is something called the "Charter of Rights and Freedoms". It's an exceedingly cynical document and a rather odd contortion of Locke's original notions. The opening line begins benignly enough and sounds as if Locke might have written it:

    "Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law..."

    That's an auspicious beginning but with barely a breath, the next line immediately subverts the supremacy of God in a profound way. Here's the second line:

    "The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society."

    Notice two things about this that are deeply, deeply cynical:

    1. It is not God but rather a document - the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms - that grants you rights as a Canadian. This is no small thing, these are CITIZEN rights, not HUMAN rights. The idea is really that if the Canadian parliament had not passed this document into law, your rights as a human being would not exist at all. There are no human rights innate in creation or granted by God at all - citizen rights are unique to Canada and granted by the human ruling power.

    2. Secondly, the rights listed are subject to change without notice and without reservation. Human rights - as Locke saw them - came from a creator and could never be altered by human government, only recognized and yielded to. But in Canada, the government expressly reserves the right to alter, change, add or obliterate all the listed rights. All rights are subject to limits prescribed by law.

    Finally - and perhaps most controversially - the Charter includes Section 33, commonly called the "notwithstanding" clause. This reads as follows:

    "Parliament or the legislature of a province may expressly declare in an Act of Parliament or of the legislature, as the case may be, that the Act or a provision thereof shall operate notwithstanding a provision included in section 2 or sections 7 to 15 of this Charter."

    What this means - in plain language and in demonstrable application by the Province of Quebec among others - is that the Canadian government both provincially and federally may pass a law that clearly violates any enumerated "right" that Canadians hold. That new law cannot be challenged if the government (as it has repeatedly since 1982) invokes the"notwithstanding" clause.

    I said in opening that this is a deeply cynical document and so it is. Though it purports to grant human rights to individuals and to buttress the authority of God, it accomplishes the inverse. Its text expressly and by design grants all God's power to government and actually manages to effectively remove all human rights without limitation of any kind. It's an impressive feat of social engineering and could not be more profoundly opposed to true freedom.

  3. Interestingly though, even if God is retained as the author of those rights, there is no guarantee of their sensible interpretation and application since that depends on your type of God as well. This is currently seen in the Middle East with their contorted view of a despotic semi-god whose supposed laws are merely being used as a basis for human depravity.

    Only if the Christian view of a benevolent and self-sacrificing God is present can a political arrangement "under God" succeed. The trouble is of course that most Canadian legislatures probably did not believe in such a being but wanted to pay lip service and therefore replaced God with a secular basis hoping to pacify both camps.

    However, as God disappears from public view in the USA as well (and people after all elect in those who are making it happen, e.g. via the appointed supreme court justices) we will eventually see a similar trend. The danger is of course that, in the long run, we could then end up similar to the Middle East, serving human depravity in the name of a non-existent deity. I.e. we will be back at a time similar to Greece and Rome when God had to intervene by sending Christ.