January 27, 2022

True Unalienable Duties

by Professor Robert J. Barth

True Unalienable Duties

While you may not have heard anyone speak in terms of unalienable duties, duties are implicit within the concept of rights. If there are unalienable rights from the Creator, there are corresponding unalienable stewardship duties to the Creator. The gift of rights without the recognition of corresponding duties will quickly degenerate into anarchy, but rights constrained or limited by duties protect true liberty.

James Madison said that those duties we owe exclusively to the Creator, are rights among men. In other words, each of us has the right to fulfill our duties to God according to the dictates of our own conscience. These duties include respecting the Creator’s design in His created order and being creative and fruitful within the parameters of liberty gifted to us. Living contrary to the Creator’s will and design will result in destructive consequences. We cannot abdicate our stewardship duties to the Creator for His unalienable gifts to us without experiencing negative consequences. The point is that unalienable rights among men presuppose unalienable duties to the Creator, the Giver of those rights.  

While James Madison was specifically addressing the unalienable right of religion in his Memorial and Remonstrance, in discussing this right he gave us a framework to identify other unalienable rights, such as life and liberty, with corresponding duties to the Creator. Whatever duties we owe directly to the Creator because of gifts from the Creator are rights among other people. Madison was not suggesting that it was impermissible for the civil government to acknowledge the Creator because acknowledging the Creator is a duty at the very foundation of America’s philosophy of government.

As a close advisor to George Washington, it is safe to assume that Madison agreed with Washington’s first Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1789 when he stated, “It is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God.” This was only 4 years after Madison wrote his Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments. Madison had a jurisdictional understanding of law and government. Some duties are owed directly to God; other duties are owed to the civil government as instituted by the people. This is consistent with the words of Jesus when He said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s (Matthew 22:21).   

The purpose of the Declaration of Independence was not to define all unalienable rights, but it was, in part, to acknowledge the Creator as the grantor of those rights and the duty of civil government to protect and secure the unalienable rights of all individuals. American civil government was to be a servant of the people, not the other way around.

To read about Unalienable Rights visit this post.


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About the Author

Professor Robert J. Barth
A graduate of the University of Illinois (B.S. 1976), Professor Robert J. Barth received his Juris Doctor from Southern Illinois University School of Law in 1979. He received his Master’s Degree in Public Policy from Regent University in 1986. From 1986 to 1995, Professor Barth was associated with Regent University School of Law in several capacities, including assistant dean for academic and student affairs, and editor of the Journal of Christian Jurisprudence. He has written several articles, and as the director for academic programs, he has authored Oak Brook College’s book, Renewing Your Mind as You Study Law.


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