Two hundred and forty-one years ago today the Second Continental Congress declared that the thirteen American colonies were “and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States . . .” In doing so it not only gave birth to a new nation but also, in the same document, the Declaration of Independence, gave voice to the uniquely American understanding of liberty and human rights which the nation has upheld since that time.
Among the Declaration’s opening sentences, Congress declared:
“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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .”
We do not have a King who grants us certain “rights” as a favor or gift. While written statements of our rights (and courts to enforce those written statements) are important, they are not the source of our rights. Neither are our rights the creation of our society or culture, or something imposed by the majority, or the most powerful, of us upon the rest. And finally, they are not something which philosophy professors derive in their ivory towers.
Rather, as the Founders recognized and affirmed in the Declaration, our Creator, God, is the source of our inalienable rights. All we can do in our Constitutions and Courts is to faithfully recognize and uphold these God-given rights.
This fundamental insight into the source and nature of our human rights has several important implications which help to set apart this American understanding of those rights from the concepts of rights existing elsewhere:
First, as the Book of Isaiah teaches, we must ultimately look not to walls and fortifications, human alliances or the force of arms for our liberty and security, but to our God as their ultimate source and guarantor;
Second, rights that are the generous gift from a King or the creation of a legislative or judicial body can be revoked or changed in the same manner as they were given or created, and are thus always at risk;
Third, since our God is a God of all nations, the rights with which He endows us are the same rights with which He endows people of every time and place; and
Lastly, because our God is unchanging (Mal. 3:6; Nu. 23:19; Is. 40:8, 40:28; Jas. 1:17), we can feel secure that our God-given rights will not be altered or revoked at God’s whim.
We should always remain vigilant, first to affirm that God is the source of our rights, and then to resist any attempt to limit, restrict or take away those rights using the tools that God has given us, including our written Bill of Rights, our court system and our ability to choose our own government officials. And we should be prepared, each of us, to exercise our rights from time to time, even when that might be unpopular, and to stand up for those rights even when that is uncomfortable or might subject us to penalty, to insure that they remain fresh and available to future generations of Americans.