The Christian origins of human rights

The notion of human rights has increasing political salience—but is it built on sturdy philosophical ground?

September 13, 2016
Eleanor Roosevelt and United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Spanish text
Eleanor Roosevelt and United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Spanish text

Shami Chakrabartis book On Liberty ostensibly retells her “personal and political journey” as Director of Liberty, the Human Rights organisation. For all its biographic framing, however, this Director’s cut is really the story of human rights and, in particular, their turbulent recent history in the UK. Although not what she calls a human rights “fundamentalist,” Chakrabarti is unyielding in her belief that adherence to legally-enshrined human rights makes for a fairer and more just society, a belief that her language sometimes tips towards the straightforwardly salvific. Human rights, she writes at one point, are what people in some parts of the world “dream” of. They “empower the vulnerable.” They “irritate and inconvenience the mighty.” One wonders if we are meant to hear faint echoes of the Magnificat, the song Mary sings at the Annunciation in Luke’s gospel. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, like God, “has brought down rulers from their thrones/ but has lifted up the humble.”

The idea that human rights are today’s religion is well-established, by fans and critics alike. Writing in The Guardian in 2010, solicitor and academic Anthony Julius claimed the “powerful human rights ‘movement’…is the new secular religion of our time.” According to human rights lawyer, Francesca Klug, rights and, in particular, their incarnation in Human Rights Act are our “Values for a Godless Age”. Writing in 2015 on what the future of European Civilisation has to teach America, Roger Scruton remarked that “Europe is rapidly jettisoning its Christian heritage and has found nothing to put in the place of it save the religion of ‘human rights.’” Christianity, according to historian Samuel Moyn, “is the global faith that many would like human rights to become.”

The problem with such analyses, acute as they often are, is that it forces us into a rigid either/or dichotomy, with human rights viewed as somehow in competition or incompatible with Christianity, on the basis of which some commentators write silly things like “for human rights to flourish, religious rights have to come second to them.” (from the Guardian in 2013) Such sweeping statements ignore the fact that religious rights are human rights, both legally and philosophically; that there is no algorithm to judge between which human rights take precedence when they appear to conflict; or that there is no (and could never be any) pre-ordained set of priorities that established a permanent and inflexible hierarchy between different human rights, as to do so would be to subordinate some rights to secondary status in such a way as effectively to devalue them entirely. The uncomfortable reality is that Christianity and human rights are far more closely related than their respective critics imagine. An even more uncomfortable one is that the latter may need the former to survive.

In the later decades of the 20th century, scholars like Brian Tierney and Charles Reid Jr. laboured long in archives to show how the language and logic of rights were readily identifiable in the legal systems of mediaeval Europe. In Tierney’s words, twelfth century European society was “saturated with a concern for rights…mediaeval people first struggled for survival; then they struggled for rights.” Others have argued that such sentiments could be found even earlier, in the Church Fathers such as Basil of Caesarea who proclaimed to the rich in a sermon in the late fourth century, “that bread which you keep, belongs to the hungry; that coat which you preserve in your wardrobe, to the naked; those shoes which are rotting in your possession, to the shoeless; that gold which you have hidden in the ground, to the needy. Wherefore, as often as you were able to help others, and refused, so often did you do them wrong.”

This was clearly pulpit rhetoric rather than legal codification but ultimately the latter draws heavily on the worldview exemplified by the former; rights need a good reason to sustain them. This can be seen in human rights’ great leap forward in the 20th century. From the early 1930s, the idea of personalism, which saw humans as persons in relations, marked by an inalienable and inviolable dignity, began to gain currency, in particular through the work of the French neo-Thomistic philosopher Jacques Maritain. The movement then gained official momentum on account of the dawning realisation that far right political parties in Spain, Italy and Germany might have offered a refuge from Communism but now did so at too great a cost, and could no longer be seen as vehicles for traditional values. Personalism became a narrow and vulnerable path between two ideological heresies, and human dignity became a bulwark against the sins of both.

This could be seen in Pope Pius XI’s encyclicals, such as Mit brennender Sorge (on the Church and the German Reich), Divini redemptoris (on atheistic communism) and most importantly Quadragesimo anno, all of which spoke of the importance of human dignity, using the terms primarily of collective entities like “workers.” It could also be seen in the ground-breaking Irish Constitution of 1937 which imported this theological idea of dignity into a legal setting. It could be seen during the war, in pronouncements of American and German Catholic bishops, in Maritain’s own 1942 work, Human RightsandNatural Law, and in Pope Pius XII’s Christmas message of that year, which firmly and explicitly connected dignity and rights. And it could be seen after the war, when Maritain continued as an effective global evangelist for human rights, both in UNESCO and as French Ambassador to Holy See (where he helped orient Pope Pius XII towards human rights language in the late 1940s), and Charles Malik, a Lebanese Christian, was responsible for the personalistic language in UN Declaration itself. In the word of his historian Samuel Moyn, who has traced this remarkable moment in intellectual history, “the human person became a key figure in thought at the United Nations, thanks to Christians who were impressed by papal language and who injected it into founding documents.”

Now, before we hear a chorus of indignant secularists howling at a believer for having egregiously desecrated their sanctuary, is it important to recognise that while this is the truth it is hardly the whole truth. There are plenty of counter-narratives that might be told here.

For all that Church Fathers or mediaeval schoolmen might have gestured in the direction, and even used the language of rights, it is hard to trace them back to biblical ethics (which is not to say there have not been some sophisticated attempts to do so). Similarly, for all that early modern Christians pondered rights, not least in the wake of the conquest of the Americas and the questions that raised about the rights of indigenous tribes, rights talk only came of age in the Revolutions of the Enlightenment, and for much of the ensuing century the churches, not least the Catholic church, was implacably opposed to them (indeed, it was precisely that opposition that made the 20th century volte face so remarkable). Intellectual history is rarely straightforward and refuses to take easy side in contemporary debates.

Such counter-narratives duly acknowledged, however, the fact remains that Christianity and human rights are cousins of some description. Superficially very different—one an ancient religion, the other a well worked through legal systemisation—beneath the surface, they not only share intellectual ancestors but also a particular vision of human nature and the human good, and a particular attitude to weakness and to power. The challenge to many contemporary human rights advocates, however, is that only Christianity has a compelling reason why, grounding its answer in the incommensurable dignity of the human that is revealed in the Christian story in way that human rights per se cannot.

This may not matter. After all, when, at one of the early meetings of a UNESCO National Commission where Human Rights were being discussed, someone “expressed astonishment that certain champions of violently opposed ideologies had agreed on a list of those rights,” the response came back “‘Yes…we agree about the rights but on condition that no one asks us why.’”

Yet if we lose sight of the basis upon which our values are formed, it may be harder to defend them.

The absence of a “why” did not prevent the eventual codification of human rights in 1948 but it is, nonetheless, a parlous place to stand today. Legal scholar Christopher McCrudden has noted that “with the increased political salience of human rights, and the increased use in litigation of human rights language, has come increasing attention on the theoretical underpinnings of human rights.” If we cannot agree about those underpinnings it will not result in immediate catastrophe. But the more weight we pile on the edifice the more reason we have to attend to them. Secular advocates of human rights may find the solution in the very religion they deride.

Nick Spencer is the Research Director of Theos think tank. His latest book, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values, is published by SPCK this month