In December, we celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, it has served as a charter for the modern human rights movement.
Many scholars are unaware of the religious underpinnings of the Declaration. In A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon (who is concluding her service as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See) uncovers the influence of Catholic social thought on this historic document. According to Glendon, certain phrases “have a familiar ring to persons acquainted with the social encyclicals.” Recognizing this connection, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace held a public commemoration of the anniversary attended by Pope Benedict XVI. In the United States, many Catholics celebrated the legacy of what Pope John Paul II called “one of the highest expressions of the human conscience in our time.” While some liberal Catholics used the occasion to protest the hierarchy’s opposition to gay rights, they have largely shared the Vatican’s support for the Universal Declaration.
By contrast, many evangelicals let the Declaration’s anniversary pass without notice. A Google News search for the words “evangelical” and “Universal Declaration” yielded just six stories (compared to 133 for “Catholic” and “Universal Declaration”). While the National Association of Evangelicals and Christianity Today have given increasing attention to human rights (going so far as to cite the Declaration in the past), no mention of the anniversary could be found on their websites.
Why have evangelicals ignored the birthday of the twentieth century’s most profound statement on human rights? One reason may be evangelical ambivalence about the United Nations. Another may be that some evangelicals regard “rights talk” as an alien language with little connection to Biblical faith. Raised in the evangelical subculture, I have experienced this attitude firsthand. During my undergraduate years at Wheaton College, one of my professors presented the class with a startling claim: human rights are a product of modern political thought and cannot be found in the Bible. At the time, I wondered how he could square this statement with the dozens of Bible verses proclaiming the rights of the poor.
In Justice: Rights and Wrongs, Yale University philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff offers a devastating critique of the historical narrative employed by my professor. Drawing on the work of historians Brian Tierney and John Witte, Jr., Wolterstorff argues that the “conception of justice as inherent rights was not born in the fourteenth century or the seventeenth century.” Debunking the notion that natural rights are the outgrowth of philosophical nominalism and the European Enlightenment, he pronounces this narrative “indisputably false.”
Along the way, Wolterstorff critiques the notion that rights talk is an offshoot of modern individualism. Questioning Stanley Hauerwas’ claim that the language of rights “underwrites a view of human relations as exchanges,” he presents an account of justice that is irreducibly communal. Wolterstorff also takes on those philosophers who would ground their accounts of justice in the classical Greek and Roman descriptions of the well-lived life. In his judgment, such approaches fail to take into account the inherent worth of human beings.
Rather than treating rights as a modern invention, Wolterstorff traces them back to the early church fathers and the Bible itself. Noting the prominence of the “quartet of the vulnerable” throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, he sees the protection of “widows, orphans, resident aliens, and the poor” as central to the biblical text. Criticizing those who would “de-justicize” the New Testament, he contends it “is all about justice.” Citing the focus of the Gospels on “lifting up those at the bottom,” Wolterstorff celebrates Jesus of Nazareth’s “expanded vision of the downtrodden.”
Will Wolterstorff’s Biblically-grounded account of justice sway those evangelicals who are allergic to rights talk? It is possible it will. Though most laypersons and clergy will not read this book, its rehabilitation of rights may filter down through evangelical colleges and seminaries. Thanks to Wolterstorff, it will be harder for evangelical faculty to dismiss rights as an Enlightenment creation.
As Allen Hertzke documents in Freeing God’s Children, some evangelicals have embraced the global struggle for human rights. Though initially interested in securing the religious freedoms of fellow believers, they have widened their focus to include the campaign against genocide in Darfur and the fight against human sex trafficking in Asia. Whether such evangelical activism represents a new wing of the religious left or the globalization of religious conservatism remains to be seen. Given Wolterstorff’s history of opposition to the Vietnam War, apartheid, torture, and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, it is clear that his sympathies lie with the former. Despite these political commitments, he has managed to win the respect of many conservatives.
Wolterstorff may have a harder time convincing secular readers that the “incursion of Scripture into the thought world of late antiquity made possible the rights culture that we are all familiar with.” In the final chapters of the book, he asserts that it may not be possible to provide a secular grounding for human rights, critiquing the attempts of Immanuel Kant, Ronald Dworkin, and Alan Gewirth to do just that. According to Wolterstorff’s 2007 lecture to the American Academy of Religion, “the only adequate grounding is a theistic grounding which holds that each and every human being bears the image of God and is equally loved by God.” Like political philosopher Glenn Tinder’s 1989 Atlantic article, “Can We Be Good Without God?” Wolterstorff’s argument may resonate more with people of faith than with secular scholars.
The fact that Princeton University Press was able to secure a positive blurb from New School philosopher Richard J. Bernstein suggests Wolterstorff may have a shot at influencing the wider conversation about rights. Calling Wolterstorff’s study “the most impressive book on justice since Rawls’ A Theory of Justice,” Bernstein writes that even “those who are skeptical about his theistic grounding of justice will be challenged by the clarity, rigor, and thoroughness of his arguments.” From 1997 to 1999, Bernstein was a participant in the Lilly Seminar on Religion and Higher Education, co-directed by Wolterstorff and historian James Turner. Composed of twenty-eight members from across the humanities and social sciences, it was an opportunity for secular and religious scholars to engage in serious conversation about issues of faith and meaning. Written in the same spirit of civility, Wolterstorff’s Justice is another effort to bridge the gap between secular and religious understandings of public life.