On July 8, 2019, the US State Department announced that it is forming a commission on unalienable human rights, presumably in relation to foreign policy. This announcement has prompted a range of reactions. Some criticisms were rather severe and hardly professional, raising an important question: Do the critics think the current administration can simply do nothing of value, or did these critics’ high school US government teachers not rise to their jobs, leaving their students, the current critics, seriously deficient in their knowledge of American human rights principles?

One example of such criticism that seems to either arise from ill will or else is terribly uninformed is the July 18, 2019, letter of some 50 Democratic members of the US House of Representatives written to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The letter complains, “We require clear assurances that this Commission is not merely a scheme to inject religion into government policy-making. After all, the First Amendment guarantees the separation of church and state.” This merits a response.

When we heard of the new commission, all politically educated Americans recognized that the term “unalienable rights” is a reference to the US Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776. Since then, US spelling has changed; we have been saying “inalienable” for a long time. The “un” spelling sharpens the reference to the principles of 1776. There we find those memorable words:

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, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

What our high school government teachers should have taught us is that these words are heavily dependent on the Virginia Declaration of Rights, largely written by George Mason and published on June 12, 1776, some three weeks before the more famous Declaration of Independence. There we read:

That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants and at all times amenable to them.

That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community; of all the various modes and forms of government, that is best which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety and is most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration. And that, when any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community has an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.

The famous words in the Declaration of Independence about unalienable rights are a shorter, more quotable version of the same ideas in the Virginia Declaration. But the Virginians explained unalienable rights more clearly. They are the rights that are inherent in a person and which cannot be given by a society nor taken away by a society. In this sense, they are natural rights, since they are given by nature, not given by society or government. These rights include the rights of life and liberty, to pursue property, happiness, and safety.

One point in which the Virginia Declaration differs from its famous younger sibling is how God is mentioned; this difference in the longer version should still the fears of those who ask if a new concern for unalienable rights endangers the separation of church and state. Whereas the theology of the Declaration of Independence describes God as the source of rights (people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”), the Virginia text mentions God only in the paragraph regarding freedom of religion, section 16:

That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practise Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.

The main theological claim of the Virginia Declaration is that people are required to follow reason and conscience in the realm of religion in a manner that allows equal freedom to all people, specifically excluding the use of force or violence related to religion. This is the theological foundation for the separation of church and state written into the Bill of Rights a few years later. It came from representatives of the Virginia Enlightenment, some of whom were Christians, some Deists, and probably some who were undefined in their religion. If a few bore a grudge that there is reference to rational duties to our Creator, this must have been balanced by the duties to practice forbearance, love, and charity which are mentioned especially in relation to freedom of religion.

If the new commission advises the State Department regarding the principles implied by the use of the older terminology of “unalienable rights,” not “inalienable rights,” we should expect that State should emphasize those rights which are inherent in our humanness, such as life, liberty, and the freedoms of conscience, speech, and religion, along with the rights to pursue happiness, property, and safety. This terminology emphasizes that these rights are not given by society and may not be taken away by society or its government. They are dimensions of human dignity which governments exist to protect.

I asked if the critics of the new commission are so critical of the current administration that they believe nothing good can come from it, or if those critics are not familiar with American principles of human rights. It was a trick question; there is a third option.

Across the twentieth century, sometimes from totalitarian regimes, we heard the assumption that human rights come from the state or the governing party, that rights do not come from nature, God, or human dignity. I cannot evaluate the philosophical theories of 50 members of Congress and their staffs, but it would be terribly frightening if those 50 lawmakers believed they have the power to give human rights. What one can give, one can also take away, including the rights of human beings. Such an assumption would make a branch of government a God-substitute, giving and taking rights, a denial of the declarations of 1776 and the Bill of Rights. Rather than properly separating church and state, such a theory of rights would put all our rights at risk.

We have a better option. Rather than endangering the separation of church and state, these classical American texts lay a firm foundation for human rights, including nuanced roles for church and state. Why not have a commission to reconsider “unalienable rights” and their application today? We might learn something!

Thomas K. Johnson, PhD, Kt., serves the World Evangelical Alliance and its 600 million members as Senior Advisor for Religious Freedom and Special Envoy to the Vatican.