“The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.” John F. Kennedy
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Today most of us take for granted that each human being is born with civil rights, but when Thomas Jefferson put these words in the Declaration of Independence he was expressing a philosophy that was still quite controversial.
Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers largely borrowed the concept of God-given human rights from seventeenth century philosopher John Locke, who got the idea from the Bible; but don’t expect to hear that in a typical university history class. The standard treatment in college history textbooks is that society had to move beyond a childish belief in the Bible before people could have widely recognized human rights.
The freshman textbook America’s Promise frames it this way:
Throughout the 1700s both Americans and Europeans embraced the Enlightenment, a widespread philosophical movement characterized by a devotion to reason, including science; by a desire to promote learning, including mass education; by an insistence on testing ideas concretely and empirically; and by a growing skepticism toward religion. In America Benjamin Franklin, a man both practical and philosophical, epitomized the Enlightenment, as did Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. (Italics added)
As part of the Enlightenment’s emphasis on the dispassionate exploration of ideas, both the British and Americans discussed the nature of a just government. Much of this discussion grew out of a general acceptance of the English philosopher John Locke’s theory that people came together under a compact of their own making to create a government. All government, in this view, was based on natural law, that is, on certain rights that all human beings share.
It’s interesting that John Locke is the only philosopher whose name appears in this passage. There actually were Enlightenment age philosophers who expressed “skepticism about religion,” (Voltaire and Rousseau chief among them); but John Locke acknowledged the Bible as the revealed Word of God.
Locke’s Two Treatises of Government built a strong case for the idea of fundamental human rights. His claim that the right of rulers to govern can only justly come from “the consent of the governed” laid the foundation for the republican form of government Jefferson and the other Founders would build. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the Declaration of Independence borrows Locke’s phrase “consent of the governed,” along with other key phrases, and is certainly expressing his overall view in declaring that all men are “endowed by their Creator” with inalienable rights to life and liberty.
In the first of his Two Treatises, Locke adduces Bible verses by the dozen to refute Sir Robert Filmer’s claims of a Divine Right of kings. In the seminal Second Treatise he tells us that the arbitrary power of kings is not legitimate, because all men are answerable to God.
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.
America’s Founding Fathers may well have been attracted to Locke’s philosophies specifically because of his belief in Biblical Truth; it was a belief most of them shared.
John Adams, in his inaugural address, told the nation that he considered “a decent respect for Christianity” to be “among the best recommendations for the public service.” He then closed out the address with “And may that Being who is supreme over all, the Patron of Order, the Fountain of Justice, and the Protector in all ages of the world of virtuous liberty, continue His blessing upon this nation and its Government and give it all possible success and duration consistent with the ends of His providence.”
The authors of the history textbook quoted above are right when they describe Benjamin Franklin as “a man both practical and philosophical.” And it was these very characteristics that made Franklin, who was less devout in religion than most of the other Founders, nonetheless an advocate of conventional religious practices. In his interesting and very readable autobiographyhe attributes his own success in life to a verse from the Old Testament book of Proverbs. Also in the autobiography he describes how he had, in his youth, briefly rejected his Christian upbringing in favor of Deism, an amorphous semi-Religion that denies the validity of the Bible, the power of prayer, and any role for God in the lives of men. Franklin soon observed that all the Deists he knew, himself included, tended to treat their friends and families badly. He concluded that Deism, “tho’ it might be true, was not very useful.”
George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and virtually all the other men who played large roles in forming our nation and writing its Constitution named God as the author and source of all human rights, and the only hope for the Nation’s success.
Teachers who imply that “skepticism toward religion” is necessary for the development of a free and just society are misrepresenting history.