Most of the time, however, when people say that our rights come from God what they are most concerned about affirming is that those rights are not created by human beings. That, it seems to me, is true, or else there are no human rights at all.
But why could what we understand as human rights not be, in fact, the contingent achievement of a contingent civilization, i.e. the West? And why can these rights not be defended as contingent human achievements that have advanced human dignity and well-being? It seems to me that the mark of the epistemological conservative is precisely a capacity to defend the contingent without illusions and with passion. I can see, in other words, why many would ascribe such rights to God, but not why they can only be ascribed to God. But this is, I guess, a deep divide within conservatism - between those of us who see no reason why humanists and secularists cannot defend the West on contingent grounds and those who believe that only transcendent faith can defend a contingent constitution.
It seems that Sullivan and Ponnuru agree that human rights were created either by God or by humans. They also don't seem to believe there is another possible view. I believe that human rights have always existed and were not created by anything. I might be wrong, but I do exist. The belief that one can not believe in moral absolutes without believing in God seems widespread (see Michael Gerson of course). Where did it come from ?
I happen to agree with Ponnuru that, as a matter of definition, rights that are "he contingent achievement of a contingent civilization," are called civil rihts not human rights. A human right must belong to all humans including the first who sure was up to any achievements of any "contingent civilization,".
However, I also think that people can love and protect human rights even if they believe that they are contingent achievements of a contingent civilization, that is, I think the question of whether human rights exist separately from our belief in human rights is not important, so on the main issue I agree with Sullivan.
By the way, Thomas Jefferson was pretty damn secular and that didn't prevent him from writing " We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independant, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness;". "from that equal creation they derive" was changed to "and are endowed by their Creator" by an amendment. I think the little historical fact that the original draft of the declaration of independence did not appeal to a creator to claim that men have inherent rights tends to rather weaken Ponnuru's position. The fact that more traditionally religious delegates had the majority, does not imply that their greater insistence on bringing God into everything important was necessary to the project.