Yes, our rights come from God: A needed lesson on America’s faith-infused founding


A disturbing narrative is metastasizing within our national consciousness: that Americans who embrace religious faith are potentially dangerous extremists, and that faith-inspired engagement in the public square poses a threat to our democracy.

These false and egregious notions are not new, but they are clearly spreading. They also warrant an informed response.

In a now-infamous MSNBC appearance, Politico reporter Heidi Przybyla (who ironically styles herself as someone “investigating democracy”) declared that anyone who believes in the concept of God-given rights to be a “Christian nationalist,” a deliberately provocative term. Her subsequent justification of her comments only reiterated her original smear.

Meanwhile, a new documentary film by Rob Reiner (“God and Country“) seeks to expose so-called “Christian nationalism” and, according to USA Today, “asks whether a new wave of believers will wash away democracy in America.”

In reality, the opposite is true: Inspiration from the divine does not undermine democracy — it undergirds our nation’s entire republican project.

Przybyla’s misguided statements, Reiner’s anxious movie and similar hyperventilating by many commentators all highlight a much deeper and more pervasive ignorance of America’s founding and history — including the central idea that our rights are “endowed by [our] Creator,” not bestowed upon us by any government.

This belief is not the byproduct of some new right-wing trend. Rather, it was a cornerstone belief of our nation’s founding, championed by the Founding Fathers and embedded within our founding documents. It has proven essential to our centuries-long practice of self-governance, individual liberty, and a flourishing civil society.

Nearly 200 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that in America, religious faith was “indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.” Today, misunderstandings of the prominent role that faith and religious freedom played in America’s founding and history are sadly commonplace.

A new study from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation alarmingly revealed “the nation’s civic knowledge is badly lagging.” More than 70 percent of Americans “lack basic understanding of government” and couldn’t pass a basic civic literacy test. Meanwhile, the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that civics and U.S. history scores among public school students have been dropping for many years.

As we enter another presidential election season and approach the 250th anniversary of the American founding in just two years, we must urgently rededicate ourselves to understanding and defending the principles central to the American experiment.

Americans should know and appreciate, for example, the significant differences between the French and American revolutions. Although historians often describe them as comparable revolts against their oppressive governments, they were diametrically opposed philosophical exercises. The French Revolution did not base its understanding of rights in natural law, instead declaring “liberty, equality, and fraternity” as independent from God. A distinctive and unique feature of the American Revolution, in contrast, was the argument that basic human rights are derived not from any earthly body, government, or ruler, but from a Creator God.

It is for this reason that the Declaration of Independence, drawing on the influence of John Locke, states that “all men are created equal…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” James Madison, in The Federalist No. 43, and Samuel Adams in “The Rights of the Colonists,” also both unambiguously stated a belief in rights that preexist governmental structures and are merely safeguarded, not granted, by governments.

In his 1796 Farewell Address, George Washington proclaimed, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” In “Democracy in America,” Tocqueville agreed when he wrote, “The safeguard of morality is religion, and morality is the best security of law as well as the surest pledge of freedom.”

Fast forward to today, when the decline of these essential pillars is apparent. As civic literacy plummets and religiosity recedes, animosity toward religious individuals and institutions is increasing. In 2023 alone, a staggering 436 violent acts of aggression against churches were reported — more than twice as many as in 2022.

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These trends are symptoms of a society losing the reverence and community ties cultivated and fostered by its Judeo-Christian heritage. Those eager to sweep away that heritage completely must know that deconstructing and jettisoning the original philosophical building blocks of the United States would have consequences unfavorable to freedom.

We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to remind our fellow citizens of the Judeo-Christian principles that made our country exceptional at its founding, which anchor our rights to a permanent source that predates all governments, and which continue to ensure our democracy’s survival.

Timothy Head is executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

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