[Enlightenment] provides the structure for the key term of liberal democracy, the most successful and useful political notion of our world: rights. Government exists to protect the product of men’s labor, their property, and therewith life and liberty. The notion that man possesses inalienable natural rights, that they belong to him as an individual prior, both in time and in sanctity, to any civil society, and that civil societies exist for and acquire their legitimacy from ensuring those rights, is an invention of modern philosophy. Rights…are new in modernity, not a part of the common-sense language of politics or of classical political philosophy. Hobbes initiated the notion of rights, and it was given its greatest respectability by Locke. -- Allan Bloom, "The Closing of the American Mind," p. 165.
That was Allan Bloom crediting Hobbsean-Lockean Enlightenment with the notion of unalienable rights. The East Coast Straussians, of which Bloom is the most famous figure, view "rights talk" as a fundamentally modern enterprise and a break with classical or Christian "worldviews." A number of notable social conservatives agree with this idea -- for instance, Robert Bork -- and they in turn are likely to endorse a strictly constructed understanding of the US Constitution, with the Declaration of Independence purposefully having no part of constitutional interpretation.
Yet, Allan Bloom's/the East Coast Straussians' view of "rights talk" remains highly debated. This is the subject of many books, not a medium sized blog post. The rest of my post is going to have a narrow focus: Who first coined the phrase "unalienable" or "inalienable rights"? I have found that it was indeed John Locke, as Bloom notes above. This is not the same as the much harder to answer question: Who first posited the concept, without necessarily using the phrase? For instance, Roger Williams' ideas on "liberty of conscience" more or less say the same thing as Locke's, and Williams predated Locke. However Williams didn't use the phrase "u[i]nalienable rights."
The most recent Coral Ridge program featured one Dr. Robert Peters who suggested that Samuel Rutherford and John Knox first put forth the concepts of u[i]nalienable rights even intimating they used that term by name. However, that is not true. They didn't use the term "u[i]nalienable rights." At least not from what I have uncovered.
It's been noted that John Locke borrowed the concept of u[i]nalienable rights from Samuel Rutherford. However, no evidence directly connects Locke to Rutherford. Locke certainly never cited Rutherford. Francis Schaeffer seems to be the source of this myth in the modern age. It's possible that Locke absorbed Rutherford's ideas by osmosis. [They were "in the air" as Tom Van Dyke would put it.] However, Locke's views were similar to Rutherford's only insofar as both posited the legitimacy of resisting Kings under Romans 13. On religious liberty issues, Rutherford and John Knox were both unrepentant theocrats who defended Calvin's execution of Michael Servetus simply for preaching theological unitarianism. You can read of the very disturbing primary sources here. On top features a quotation of Rutherford's:
"It was justice, not cruelty, yea mercy to the Church of God, to take away the life of Servetus, who used such spirituall and diabolick cruelty to many thousand soules, whom he did pervert, and by his Booke, does yet lead into perdition."
-- Samuel Rutherfurd, "A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience." (1649).
You can read John Knox's disgraceful defense of Servetus' execution here.
It's been brought to my attention that Roman Catholic theologians may have anticipated John Locke's and Algernon Sidney's natural rights ideas that America's Founders used to declare independence (indeed Sidney cites them in his writings). However I still have seen no evidence that these Roman Catholic sources used the term "u[i]nalienable rights."
Why is all of this relevant? For a variety of reasons, folks of different ideologies want to "claim" the Founding. If their heritage gave it us, as the theory goes, they own it and therefore deserve some kind of special recognition or privilege in terms of what America "ought" to be. It's no surprise that on the Calvinist Coral Ridge Hour they tried to credit Calvinist sources, that the Acton Institute, comprised mainly of Roman Catholics, wants to credit Roman Catholic sources for America's Founding ideals, and secularists want to credit the Enlightenment. None of this, of course, "poisons the well," because one of them may be right...or not.
But, in the end we are left with John Locke as the first to coin the phrase "u[i]alienable rights," and without question he is "America's philosopher." And in this "religious heritage" battle over American Founding ideals we are left with a half empty half full figure with Locke. Locke called himself a Christian and believed Jesus was the Messiah and termed Christianity "reasonable." He also excessively used reason/natural law in his philosophical inquiries and posited ideas that arguably conflicted with the traditional Christian view of reality. Finally he was accused of being a theological unitarian in an era when one wasn't free to openly deny the Trinity (see Servetus). And in all likelihood, he was one.