The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: Do human rights come from God or from the government?

Where do human rights come from? Are they God-given or are they granted by governments on their citizens, and thus contingent on spirit of the age understandings of justice?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

Note: We welcome two new panelists this week, the Reverend Ray Lanning (Reformed Presbyterian) and The Reverend Colleen Squires (Unitarian Universalist).

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“Reformed Christians heartily agree with the Declaration of Independence 'that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.' It took a long time for Reformed Christians to overcome inherited racism and innate ethno-centrism, and affirm human equality in practice as well as in theory. No doubt we have more work to do.  

“The notion of human rights is not alien to us. But it is problematic, since these rights are often asserted at the expense of human responsibility. God has never left men free to do as they please, but ever decrees that our freedom be exercised within the framework of His moral law. Human rights cannot be secure where there is no regard for the Author of those rights, and no sense that we must answer to Him for the way we exercise them. ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.’ (Psalm 111:10)”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Adjutant Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“The foundational principles upon which human rights derive come from natural law. Natural law is defined by the Roman Catholic Church as ‘nothing other than the light of understanding placed in us by God; through it we know what we must do and what we must avoid. God has given this light or law at the creation’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 475.) Further, ‘natural law, the Creator’s very good work, provides the solid foundation on which humans can build the structure of moral rules to guide their choices. It provides the indispensable moral foundation for building the human community. Finally, it provides the necessary basis for the civil law with which it is connected, whether by reflection that draws conclusions from its principles, or by additions of a positive juridical nature.’ (ibid.)

“Therefore, all human rights come from God through ‘natural law,’ which ‘is immutable.’ (ibid.) It is upon the foundation of natural law that all laws made by humans are derived.”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“One could say that the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Hindu Dharma teaches that at our core we are pure reflections of God. One of the aspects of divinity is a state to which we aspire known as moksha, or liberation. There is much debate about whether humans have evolved over the centuries. Hindus claim that though it be ever so incremental, we do. The concept of self government is said to be a product of that evolution. Though we still have despotic leadership in so many countries it seems inevitable that they will catch up. 

“Of course, the deeper teachings instruct us that true freedom is never achieved until one learns to control the senses and be led by wisdom. The most liberal democracy in the world cannot grant that.”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“Unitarian Universalists have a long history of supporting a strong separation between Church (God) and State (government). Ultimately I see this question as asking which one is given more authority over the other. In the United States human rights are granted by the laws of the land and will most likely continue to evolve due to the ‘spirit of the age.’ In this country we have one government intended to serve all people equally. We also have a multitude of religions with many conflicting beliefs. This system allows us to practice the religion of our choosing without inflicting our beliefs on others.”

My response:

I would locate the religious foundation for human rights in the beginning of Genesis (1:26), “Let us make the human being in our image, after our likeness.” Unique among creation, the man and woman share some unnamed characteristic with God. But more important for our purposes, a consequence of the Genesis creation story is that every human being is an equal descendant of the first couple. Therefore, every person equally shares some set of rights (and obligations) granted to him and her from God.

However, throughout history individuals have depended on a government, king, priest, landowner, church, or other authority for some or all of their freedom. Human rights may be given by God, but in human run societies, we will always be dependent on other humans to allow us to exercise them.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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