On May 3, 2017 at the Graduate Center, CUNY, a daylong conference was held to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The conference was supported by the Committee for the Study of Religion and the Advanced Research Collaborative. Participants were asked to address a topic that has recently generated heightened interest, namely the contribution of the Protestant Reformation to the modern notion of human rights.

Linking Protestantism with rights has a long history. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789, which is often seen as a precursor to, and an inspiration behind, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, was quickly denounced as a Protestant conspiracy by counterrevolutionary Catholics. Louis de Bonald, one of the most influential Catholic writers of his generation, loudly condemned Protestants and their allies for replacing the “rights of God” with the “rights of man.” Joseph de Maistre, another of the period’s most well-known Catholic writers, called the idea of individual rights “political Protestantism,” by which he meant a form of selfishness that would dissolve the Christian community and lead to political and moral chaos.

Of course, the idea that Protestantism was selfish, and thus subversive of all order, went back to Martin Luther’s time. While the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” was seen as promoting a dangerous kind of equality, the idea of “free examination” was seen as encouraging a sinful form of individualism that invariably led to the disrespect for community and tradition. Endlessly repeated in anti-Lutheran pamphlets was the idea that Luther, by encouraging people to read the Bible on their own, also encouraged individuals to question established traditional authorities.

In France, the outbreak of religious wars and the development of Huguenot resistance theories only confirmed such arguments. They furnished concrete evidence that the right to religious freedom led to social and political anarchy, and even war. Two centuries later, such ideas remained alive and well in France. They led Catholic critics to condemn the Enlightenment as yet another manifestation of the pernicious spirit of Protestantism. Luther’s revolt against the Catholic Church had led people to conceive a growing number of rights: not just freedom of religion, but of thought, press, and property. When would it end? When the Revolution broke out and the Declaration of Rights proclaimed, it was proof once again of the long-term poisonous effects of the Reformation. At the heart of the problem was what Bonald called the Protestant “right of examination and interpretation.” This was the primordial right—the right from which all other rights sprung.

Interestingly, liberal Protestants agreed with the fundaments of this argument. Benjamin Constant and Madame de Staël recognized the “right to examine” as an eminently Protestant gift to the world. Like their Catholic critics, they thought that this right to think freely was the source and support of all others. They denied, of course, that it was selfish, immoral, or even subversive. But they did connect it closely to the “ideas of 1789” and the French Declaration of Rights.

Throughout the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, both advocates and critics linked the idea of rights with Protestantism. The Vatican repeatedly condemned them as a sinful manifestation of “liberalism,” while liberals hailed them as a proud legacy of the Reformation. In his autobiography, John Stuart Mill recalled that his father had taught him to “to take the strongest interest in the Reformation, as the great and decisive contest against priestly tyranny for liberty of thought.” It was only in 1942, as Samuel Moyn has argued, that a Pope endorsed the idea of “fundamental personal rights,” by which, however, he meant something quite different.

Today, when scholars take up the question of the Christian contribution to human rights, they rarely, if ever, speak of this long history. The importance accorded to “the right to examine” seems to have been forgotten. But when we think of the Christian origins of human rights, we might keep this in mind: What we regard as Christian has changed over the course of history, and what we regard as a human right has, too. All the component parts of the question have been evolving and a true and accurate history might take account of that fact.

Clearly, there is need for additional research. The scholars that came together at this conference proposed some exciting new directions. Interestingly, each of them challenged the idea that there was any straightforward connection, intentional or unintentional, between the Protestant Reformation and human rights. Read more from these scholars in the brief comments below.

Many thanks to Helena Rosenblatt (History, The Graduate Center, CUNY) for collecting responses and introducing this discussion. —Eds.

Our respondents are:

Anna Akasoy | History, Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center

Christine Helmer | German and religious studies, Northwestern

David A. Hollinger | History, UC Berkeley

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins | Religious studies, Yale

Samuel Moyn | Law and history, Yale

Jonathan D. Sassi | History, College of Staten Island and CUNY Graduate Center

David Sorkin | Jewish history, Yale

John Witte, Jr. | Law, Emory


The Protestant Reformation and Islam by Anna Akasoy, professor of history, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY

Soon after the religious and political conflicts surrounding the Reformation broke out, traders, diplomats, and spies brought news of these divisions to the Islamic world. Although no extensive reports composed in chronological proximity to the events about their religious dimension have come to light, Muslim authors alluded to a “new religion” founded in Europe. Their perception depended on their geographical position as well as political alliances of their states with western Europeans. Political disunity among European Christians was of great strategic interest to the Ottoman Empire and Saadian Morocco, but authors in both countries also showed awareness of the religious nature of confrontations. Their common enmity with Habsburg and Spain may have predisposed both rulers toward Protestantism for strategic rather than for theological reasons.

It is not clear whether they saw English and Lutheran Protestantism as related and how they assessed the Reformation’s impact. Sectarian divisions among Christians were not new to Muslims, after all. The Moroccan ruler in particular entertained extensive diplomatic contacts with the Protestant queen of England. Military concerns determined the Moroccan representation of the Anglo-Spanish conflict more than any insights into their religious and theological differences, just as the report of an Ottoman local informant of 1530 suggests greater interest in the military movement of Martin Luther than in the “new religion” which he founded. In later years both Protestant and Muslim sources suggest a proximity between them due to their common rejection of Catholic “idolatry.”

Spanish persecutions of both non-Catholic Christians and Muslims may also have fostered Protestant-Muslim alliances. Among both Muslims and Christians, however, any sectarian differences among the other religious community may have been overshadowed by the antagonism between Islam and Christianity. Among western Europeans, any actual contacts with different Muslims coexisted with a primarily discursive function of Islam that perpetuated older polemical tropes.

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Luther and modern values by Christine Helmer, Arthur E. Andersen Teaching and Research Professor, professor of German and religious studies, Northwestern University

The question of Protestant Christianity’s contribution to modern understandings of human rights in the western political tradition is especially apposite in this year of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

Scholars in Germany at the turn of the twentieth century, among them Max Weber, addressed the issue of Martin Luther’s role in the history of human rights during what is known as the Luther Renaissance, the flowering of scholarship on Luther’s contribution to the making of modernity. They aimed to situate Luther as the key player in the historical and intellectual transition from medieval Catholicism to modern Protestantism. But thinkers such as Weber and Ernst Troeltsch found it difficult, to say the least, to claim for Luther a secure place in modernity, given that Luther was, after all, a late medieval Augustinian friar, Catholic theologian, and ordained Catholic priest.

But once it is acknowledged that Luther was both Catholic and Protestant, late medieval and early modern, the question of his place in the history of human rights becomes clearer. Luther was concerned theologically with social rather than human rights (in the modern sense). He held that Christ’s death on the cross liberated humans from the bondage of obsession with self, making it possible for them to serve others; in this way, Luther’s theology of justification implied a social vision. An individual’s social rights included personal and familial as well as professional vocations; there were the callings to be a father or a mother, for instance, as well as those of being a miller, a teacher, a cleric, and so on. These God-given appointments enabled humans to exercise their talents in love toward their neighbors and in this way to contribute to the well-being of the communitas as a whole. An individual’s social rights, moreover, entailed the education necessary for the acquisition of the requisite vocational skills. To this end, Luther advocated education for boys and girls.

In short, Luther’s understanding of social rights was inextricable from his Christology and soteriology, in particular from his understanding of what Christ accomplished on the cross. To call this a contribution to “modern” human rights would require a fundamental reconceptualization of the history of modernity

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American Protestantism goes global by David A. Hollinger, Preston Hotchkis Professor Emeritus of History, UC Berkeley

When American Protestantism went global, it transformed itself. And as it changed itself it also led many missionary-connected individuals to move beyond the faith, and to become post-Protestant secularists. The story of the American missionary project’s extension of the Reformation is dialectical. It is a story of radical self-interrogation stimulated by immersion in alterity.

This self-interrogation flowered into a “missionary cosmopolitanism” with a focus on Asia. This deprovincializing movement ran parallel to the Europe-entered cosmopolitanism developed by Jewish immigrants and their children during the same middle decades of the twentieth century. But while the cosmopolitanism of the Jewish intellectuals has been widely studied, and rightly so, the cosmopolitanism of the missionary contingent has gone largely unnoticed. The two cosmopolitanisms were compatible in nearly all respects except in relation to Zionism and degrees of support for Israel.

Missionary cosmopolitanism expressed itself in a number of domains, including the development of area studies programs in universities after World War II and the promotion of multicultural programs long before the term “multicultural” became popular. But the liberalizing influence of the missionary contingent was the most striking in discussions of American foreign policy. As government officials (especially in the OSS and the Foreign Service) and as critical voices in public discourse, missionaries and the children of missionaries were conspicuous opponents of colonialism and imperialism. Missionary cosmopolitans usually wanted the United States to adopt policies allied with the self-declared interests of de-colonizing peoples. The missionary claque was badly defeated in Palestine, Vietnam, China, and elsewhere, losing out repeatedly to Eurocentric and Cold War priorities.

Religiously, the missionary experience cut Christianity down to size. Extensive and deep experience with foreign peoples challenged Christianity’s claim to a special place in the cosmos, and encouraged interfaith and post-Christian cultural movements. The missionary project was in crucial respects an engine of secularization.

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Protestantism, human rights, and contemporary critiques of secularism by Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, Presidential visiting professor and lecturer, religious studies, Yale University

In the attempt to point out the shortcomings of the “secular liberal west” today—in terms of law, international relations, human rights, et cetera—numerous scholars, across academic disciplines, are quick to make recourse to arguments that stress the Protestant Reformation and its legacy.

Interestingly, one can perhaps argue that the Cold War cottage industry of the 1950s devoted to finding the pre/early modern origins of totalitarianism­—think of works by Jacob Talmon, Leo Strauss, Raymond Aron, Carl Friedrich, Karl Lowith, et cetera—was resurrected after 1989 by the desire to find the theological origins of the end of history in the Protestant Reformation (neoliberal capital, human rights, and liberal internationalism). Whereas it was mostly famously liberals and moderate conservative academics who took to genealogy in the 1950s, it was primarily Left and Right critics of liberalism’s triumph who turned to theological genealogy during the 1990s.

The genealogical arguments of the Cold War anti-totalitarian theorists often proved insightful. Their creative scholarship showed how Gnosticism, pantheism, and other early-church heresies could be used to explain the intellectual and political origins of Communism and Fascism. And, like with today’s critics, who see such concepts as religion, secularism, and religious freedom as having deep roots in the Protestant Reformation, these Cold War thinkers often proved critical of a mere secular reading of history.

Nevertheless, seeing modernity through the lenses of heresy, messianism, and other theological derivatives often resulted in a rather ideological interpretation of the past that made some of these authors blind to alternative ways of thinking about “modern times.” Sometimes this led them to think of the world purely in nihilistic terms and to question any legitimacy of secular modern democracy whatsoever. Consequently, they remained trapped within the logic of their distinctive, and often ideological, readings of history.

Likewise, a rather particular interpretation of Protestantism and its relationship to certain human rights, most notably religious freedom, is being embraced by many scholars today that leads them to a similar dead-end. Perhaps expanding our hermetical horizons could lead us beyond this impasse to consider alternative ways of understanding religious freedom in history.

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From unintended to reinvented: The Reformation and human rights by Samuel Moyn, professor of law and professor of history, Yale University

Never in the five hundred years of commemorating the Reformation have “human rights” been prominent in its perceived legacy. The sudden presence of human rights in the Reformation’s bequest to the modern world therefore says much more about our present than the past on its own.

At the German Luthertag in November 1933, where Nazis celebrated some of their own perceived origins, great historian and biographer of the founder of Protestantism Gerhard Ritter declared: “The 450th anniversary of Luther’s birthday comes at a time of great völkisch awakening.” Yet within a mere fifteen years, he became one of the earliest historians to declare that the significance of Protestantism was that human rights came out of it. Compared to others since then who have claimed Protestantism for human rights history, however, Ritter belatedly understood how to specify this view correctly. The path was not intended to lead to human rights, and was neither short nor straight.

The Reformation was a return to fundamentals that inadvertently produced secular modernity. Perhaps its main accidental contribution was evacuating authority from and thereby constructively bringing about a new interior space. It did so with the intention of allowing God’s authority maximum sway but ultimately allowed the final stages of Christianity’s role of “religion for leaving religion behind.” What people did with the space evacuated by temporal authority (including that of social norms) and even intercessory spiritual authority (most notably that of institutionalized religion) proved very different from what those who demanded the evacuation hoped. Religious freedom for the sake of Christianity was used to create political freedom for the sake of secularism. It took a while–but the story is plain. The autonomous individual who bore rights went her own way from the patriarchy, racism, and tyranny of those who accidentally brought her about. Most important, much of this only occurred in living memory, thanks to later causes—and the process is not complete.

But to say that the Reformation (among other factors) eventuated in “human rights” is hardly to say that it is the only thing in which it eventuated or that in a few years or five hundred we will not find very different reasons to think it mattered.

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The Protestant causes of the American Revolution revisited by Jonathan D. Sassi, professor of history, College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center, CUNY

Since the 1960s, a number of historians have analyzed what influence Protestantism had on the coming of the American Revolution. On one side are those who posit a strong correlation between the two, often by focusing on the role played by the religious revivals of the mid-eighteenth century, known as the Great Awakening, in preparing the American colonial populace for the rebellion against British rule. On the other side are those who deny any connection between Protestantism and the Revolution or, at most, relegate Protestantism to a marginal factor in a mostly secular Revolutionary era.

Reviewing works by Alan Heimert, Harry Stout, Rhys Isaac, Ruth Bloch, Patricia Bonomi, Jon Butler, Mark Valeri, Mark Noll, and others, I conclude that the connection between the Great Awakening and the American Revolution seems tenuous. While the Awakening raised the degree of political contention in various parts of colonial America, it remains unclear how much that led to a lasting political impact or fed into the Revolutionary movement. Instead, I agree with those historians who argue that Protestantism imbued Revolutionary-era politics with a compelling moral dimension. A couple of explicitly religious issues, such as the controversy over an Anglican bishop or the fear that the Quebec Act was part of a Roman Catholic conspiracy, contributed to Americans’ alienation from Britain. More important were the points at which religious and political rhetoric overlapped. The language about political virtue and corruption had much in common with Protestant morality, and patriots often depicted political and religious liberty as hanging in the balance. Some ministers further raised the stakes by invoking the image of the Antichrist or the prospect of the millennium.

In sum, the American Revolution came out of a profoundly Protestant context, which cannot be brushed away with premature pronouncements about its secularity.

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Protestantism and Jewish emancipation in early modern Europe by David Sorkin, Lucy G. Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History, Yale University

The emancipation of Europe’s Jews, the process through which they gained equal rights and citizenship, is usually told as a narrative of growing toleration from the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Jewish emancipation is thus seen as one more aspect of the master narrative of triumphant Protestantism and secularization.

If we look more closely at the origins of emancipation, however, it becomes strikingly clear that Catholic polities were in fact at the forefront of introducing extensive privileges for Jews in early modern corporate society—in Italian cities and states (Ancona, Livorno) and then up the Atlantic seaboard (Bordeaux)—as well as providing the two models of emancipation legislation: Joseph II’s conditional emancipation “into” estates and the French Revolution’s emancipation “out” of estates. Thus emancipation should no longer be told as a “Protestant” story but rather as a “European” narrative in which Protestant and Catholic polities participated equally, yet in which Catholic polities may have taken the lead.

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Rights, resistance, and revolution in early modern Protestantism by John Witte, Jr., Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law, McDonald Distinguished Professor, and CSLR Director, Emory University

While several distinguished scholars today, led by Samuel Moyn, have been exploring the contested twentieth-century sources and contours of human rights, several other scholars have been mapping the history of rights in the Western tradition prior to the Enlightenment. We now know a great deal more about classical Roman understandings of rights (iura), liberties (libertates), capacities (facultates), powers (potestates), and related concepts, and their elaboration by medieval and early modern civilians. We can now pore over an intricate latticework of arguments about individual and group rights and liberties developed by medieval Catholic canonists and moralists, and the ample expansion of this medieval handiwork by Neo-Scholastic writers in early modern Spain and Portugal. We now know a good deal more about classical republican theories of liberty developed in Greece and Rome, and their transformative influence on early modern common lawyers and political revolutionaries on both sides of the Atlantic. We now know, in brief, that the West had many fundamental rights and liberties in place before there were modern democratic revolutions fought in their name.

Early modern Protestants were among the architects of this pre-Enlightenment rights tradition, even though Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other early reformers were not systematic rights theorists. As their followers faced massive persecution, inquisition, and genocide, however, later Protestants developed fuller theories of “fundamental and unalienable rights,” whose persistent and pervasive breach by a tyrant triggered the foundational right of resistance, revolution, and even regicide.

Some Protestants grounded these fundamental rights in the spiritual and civic duties of the Decalogue. Others used the biblical trope of a person as prophet, priest, and king to expound rights of speech, religion, and rule. Others pointed to the Torah’s provision for the poor, widows, orphans, sojourners, laborers, debtors, and others as a source of welfare rights. Still other Protestants developed expansive rights theories based on the order of creation and the notion of human dignity. By 1650, Protestants on both sides of the Atlantic had defined, defended, and died for almost every rights that would appear a century and half later in American constitutional bills of rights.

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