Christianity and human rights
| At least three ingredients are critical to the validity of human rights. First, human rights require universal moral norms, since they are claims that every human makes upon every other human being. No person, non-state group, or political regime may torture another person or deliberately take the life of a civilian, for instance. These claims must be true for everyone, or they are not human rights.
The second ingredient is human dignity—the inestimable worth of each and every person. It is because human beings have this worth that they can justifiably demand that certain kinds of actions never be performed against them.
The third ingredient, which philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff describes brilliantly in his book, Justice, is what might be called the “trump card” status of human rights. To say that a person has a right is to say that her claim cannot be overridden by simply balancing it against a competing basket of goods. Even if governments can realize great gains in war by targeting civilians or torturing suspects, they must refrain from these actions if they are respectful of human rights...
What traditions of thought, then, assert universal norms, human dignity, and trump card status? Religions holding that God revealed certain commandments to be binding on everyone, essential for human flourishing and dignity, and admitting little room for violation or exception are strong candidates.
Theologians and philosophers in these traditions have derived a right to life from the commandment to not murder, a right to property from the commandment to not steal, and so on. In these religions, the ingredients for human rights are cemented in an eternal and unchanging being who takes an interest in every person...
It is no accident, therefore, that historically, most of the great articulators of human (or natural) rights have been theists: the early Christian fathers; medieval canon lawyers; the Spanish scholastics; Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and Immanuel Kant; Woodrow Wilson; most of the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Jacques Maritain; and contemporary Christian, Jewish, and Muslim thinkers like John Finnis, David Novak, and Abdullahi An-Na’im.
Likewise, most of the great deniers of human and natural rights have been atheists: the philosophers David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, Friedrich Nietzsche; Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin; and the postmodernist pioneers, Michel Foucault and Richard Rorty.
The Gospel Coalition website declares concerning Christianity and human rights:
| In the most famous passage of the Declaration of Independence, it is easy to see the connection between theism and human rights: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” As I explained in God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson and the Continental Congress could have chosen more generic ways to explain the basis of equal rights (“all men are by nature equal”) but they decided to employ active, theistic language instead.
Because they operated in such a broadly Christian mental world, we can interpret the Declaration’s language as rooted in Christianity, not just general theism. But there’s evidence that the beginnings of “human rights” advocacy really did have specific, deep Christian roots.
I was fascinated to read Kyle Harper’s chapter “Christianity and the Roots of Human Dignity in Late Antiquity” in Timothy Shah and Allen Hertzke’s new volume, Christianity and Freedom, from Cambridge University Press. (The price of the book will make it affordable only for large institutional libraries, but you can get it through Interlibrary Loan programs or wait for a paperback edition, which I am told is forthcoming.) Harper, an expert on Christianity in late antiquity, and the provost at the University of Oklahoma, notes that we commonly associate ideas of human rights with the “Enlightenment” of the eighteenth century, on which some of the Declaration draws.
But Harper posits that human rights advocacy—especially that all people have equal dignity—had key, if not unique roots in Christianity of the fourth through the sixth centuries. Why did these roots not appear earlier, we might ask? Harper answers that the difference from the early church is that Christians in the age of Constantine were moving into positions of power. They could hope to effect social change, in accord with Christian principles, for the first time.
The philosophers of Greek and Roman antiquity “lacked the concept of human dignity,” Harper explains. As Christianity became more widespread, leaders of the church developed more influence, and some rulers even became Christians. This “created the grounds for the development of human rights.”
Peter Berkowitz wrote at the website Real Clear Politics:
| The founders of classical liberalism saw the connection between religion and liberty differently. Figures such as John Locke, James Madison, Edmund Burke, and Alexis de Tocqueville maintained that the protection of individual rights, the practice of toleration, and the institutions of limited government central to classical liberalism derived support from Christian faith, and that religion was most secure in a free society. They viewed faith and freedom not as mortal adversaries and not even as neutral noncombatants but rather as indispensable allies.
In “Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom,” Robert Louis Wilken provides a wealth of evidence drawn both from major events and seminal texts to show that the unfolding of Christian faith and the development in the West of the idea of individual freedom have been intimately intertwined...
What distinguishes Christianity has been the steady and deepening appreciation that its core teachings require not merely toleration — in the sense of grudging or politically expedient acceptance of differences in religious belief and forms of worship — but rather robust freedom because by its very nature faith cannot be coerced. So powerful was this idea within Christianity and so profound has been Christianity’s influence in the West and around the world that it has furnished an “intellectual framework” that established freedom of religion as a basic assumption of liberal democracy and eventually as a fundamental human right.
Professor emeritus of the history of Christianity at the University of Virginia, Wilken argues that a commitment to religious freedom is sown into Christianity’s foundations. The opening chapters of the Hebrew Bible – for Christians, the Old Testament — teach that man was created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27), and that this brings openness to, and ultimately the ability to distinguish between, good and evil (Genesis 3:22). Wilken quotes Tertullian (A.D. 160-A.D. 220), who provided the outstanding defense of the freedom of early Christians within the Roman world to follow their faith: “Man was created by God as free, with power to choose and power to act. ... There is no clearer indication in him of God’s image and similitude than this, the outward expression of God’s own dignity.”
Reviews of the book Christian Human Rights by Samuel Moyn
"Samuel Moyn has emerged as the most important voice on the history of human rights in the twentieth century, and his book Christian Human Rights will be of interest to anyone who cares about human rights in general and the often forgotten context of the run-up to the Universal Declaration in particular."— Jan-Werner Müller, Princeton University
"Christian Human Rights is consistently and stimulatingly opinionated. Samuel Moyn maintains throughout his book an excellent and authentic vigor, demonstrating that the genesis of modern human-rights rhetoric can be found in a largely conservative Christian worldview that took shape in Western Europe (as well as in North America) in the 1940s." — Martin Conway, University of Oxford
The University of Pennsylvania Press website declares concerning Samuel Moyn's book Christian Human Rights:
| In Christian Human Rights, Samuel Moyn asserts that the rise of human rights after World War II was prefigured and inspired by a defense of the dignity of the human person that first arose in Christian churches and religious thought in the years just prior to the outbreak of the war. The Roman Catholic Church and transatlantic Protestant circles dominated the public discussion of the new principles in what became the last European golden age for the Christian faith. At the same time, West European governments after World War II, particularly in the ascendant Christian Democratic parties, became more tolerant of public expressions of religious piety. Human rights rose to public prominence in the space opened up by these dual developments of the early Cold War...
By focusing on the 1930s and 1940s, Moyn demonstrates how the language of human rights was separated from the secular heritage of the French Revolution and put to use by postwar democracies governed by Christian parties, which reinvented them to impose moral constraints on individuals, support conservative family structures, and preserve existing social hierarchies. The book ends with a provocative chapter that traces contemporary European struggles to assimilate Muslim immigrants to the continent's legacy of Christian human rights." - University of Pennsylvania Press website
- Philpott, Daniel [Professor of Political Science and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame] (May 28, 2014). "No human rights without God" Open Global Rights
- The Christian Roots of Human Rights, Gospel Coalition website
- Recovering the Christian Foundations of Human Rights by Peter Berkowitz, RealClearPolitics.com
- Christian Human Rights by Samuel Moyn
- Christian Human Rights by Samuel Moyn