The existence of human rights, or prima facie1 entitlements2 applying to all persons on account of their humanity, is often treated as a basic assumption in ethics, law, and justice.3 Many ethical dilemmas concern conflicting claims to rights, and voices on both sides of major controversies like abortion frequently frame their arguments in terms of rights.4 But all this discourse is meaningless unless the rights referred to are grounded in a meaningful foundation. If such a foundation exists and is knowable, then we can understand which rights exist, which rights take precedence, and how to resolve controversies surrounding rights. But where can we find this foundation?
The following analysis argues that the biblical doctrine of the imago Dei, unlike the secular anthropologies of Western popular culture, establishes a meaningful foundation for the existence, protection, and application of human rights. Building this case will require investigating biblical teachings about the imago Dei, examining theological interpretations of the image, and demonstrating that God’s image marks all humans at all times. A comparison of biblical and secular frameworks for human rights will then reveal that a biblical—but not a secular—worldview provides a robust foundation for the theory and practice of human rights in the public square.