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.
John Schmalzbauer: 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.
What a tragic statement, but true. Natural Law (Rights) is everywhere in scripture i.e. Dt 8, Psalm 40, II Cor 3:3, Rom 2:14-15. It is amazing professors can miss something that obvious, and the philosophers from Aquinas to Locke espousing the same thing.
Though it may be a tangential remark, Schmalzbauer could be accused of conflating post-liberal mainline protestantism (Stanley Hauerwas) with American neo-Evangelicalism. The difference between the two is quite significant, especially since the latter over the last 50 years views political participation as a responsibility. That is, they acknowledge the legitimacy of democracy (not voting, for instance, is viewed by the typical Evangelical as irresponsible—whether conservative or liberal). However, the current post-liberal trend views the equal distribution of political power expressed via the vote as some type of simulacra of an egalitarian Christian community. Put differently, one could say that Evangelicals view voting as something of a fundamental right that is therefore good. What Wolterstorff is criticizing with Hauerwas, I believe is qualitatively different.
Daniel Steinmetz makes an excellent point. I mentioned Stanley Hauerwas mainly because Wolterstorff did. There is certainly a clear distinction between the American evangelical movement and post-liberalism. At the same time, some of the evangelical scholars I know are attracted to post-liberalism. Within that group of post-liberal evangelicals, some are suspicious of rights talk (even of the kind that Wolterstorff celebrates).
Steinmetz is right to point out that evangelicals have been politically engaged for several decades. However, this is not the same thing as valuing documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A case could be made that evangelical anti-abortion rhetoric draws on rights language (the “right to life”). Nowhere did I mean to imply that all evangelicals are suspicious of rights talk. But some (like my professor at Wheaton College) certainly are.
The question would seem to be not which brand of religious tradition is trying to support human rights on specific issues, such as Darfur or asset-based money, but rather is the question who is trying to revive human rights as a systematic paradigm for viewing all of human life based on a traditionalist or classical system of thought that may have been lost in the modern age. In other words it is a question of conscious paradigmatic transformation.
An good example of an issue-oriented approach favored perhaps by most Protestants is Jim Wallis’s, The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America. A good example of the systems or paradigmatic approach favored by Roman Catholics would be Russell Hittinger’s The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in a Post-Christian World, which I reviewed, along with several other recent books in my article “Taproot to Terrorism: The Loss of Transcendent Law in America and the Muslim World,” published in The Muslim World Book Review, Summer 2005.
The second question is which of these consciously paradigmatic approaches is being revived under the rubric of justice as another word for natural law and as simply an older term for human rights. The best book in the Roman Catholic tradition, with specific reference to the current issues of banking, credit, and taxation, is Michael D. Greaney’s collection of his articles from the Social Justice Review under the title In Defense of Human Dignity: Essays on the Just Third Way: A Natural Law Perspective.
Within the Islamic tradition, the best book on natural law and justice is the monumental tome by Jasser Auda entitled Maqasid al Shari’ah as Philosophy of Islamic Law: A Systems Approach. This is part of an entire library of books being published by the International Institute of Islamic Thought either as translations from the Arabic, such as Ibn Ashur’s seminal treatise of 1946, published as Ibn Ashur: Treatise on Maqasid al-Shari’ah, or else written, like Auda’s, originally in English and translated into Arabic and other languages. Some of these books are reviewed, for example, in my article, “Human Rights in Traditionalist Islam: Legal, Political, Economic, and Spiritual Perspectives,” in The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, Winter 2008.
The IIIT is now preparing for a twenty-year project to publish in Wikipedic form a twenty-volume Encyclopedia of Natural Law and Justice, perhaps categorized according my own preferred formulation of the irreducibly universal principles of justice, known as the maqasid, as developed during the high point of the Andalucian civilization by Muslims, Jews, and Christians.
This formulation consists of two categories of principles, each consisting of four major purposes as headings for an architectonics that recognizes two levels of sub-categories (known as hajjiyat and tahsiniyat), perhaps first introduced in the modern West in the book The Sun is Rising in the West, edited by Haleem and Bowman in 1998.
The categories and component parts are listed below in order of priority as a code of human responsibilities and human rights:
1.) Haqq al Din, the free right and duty to be aware of and worship God (with the implied right also not to do so) and to search for ultimate truth and justice;
2.) Haqq al Nafs, the duty to respect the human person, known as the natural law principle of personalism; including the second-order principle or hajj of haqq al haya or duty to respect human life;
3.) Haqq al Mahid (from wahada), the duty to respect the coherent order or tawhid of all creation, i.e. ecology and environment;
4.) Haqq al Nasl, the duty to respect human community based on the sacredness of each of its members (not on any secular human collectivity);
5.) Haqq al Mal, the duty to respect private property and societal institutions of money, credit, and taxation to promote the universal right to individual ownership of productive wealth;
6.) Haqq al Hurriyah, the duty to respect the political self-determination of persons and communities, based on the principle of subsidiarity, whereby legitimacy originates in the human person and ascends upwards through such second-order implementing tools as political democracy;
7.) Haqq al ‘Ilm, the duty to respect rational thought through freedom of speech, publication, and assembly;
8.) Haqq al Karama, especially the duty to respect gender equity in social life.
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
That’s article 18 of the UN Declaration.
I wonder if American Evangelicals are more likely to embrace this than, say, your average everyday “moderate Muslim,” at least your average, “moderate Muslim” in the Arab Islamic world.
After all, freedom of religion, which would include the freedom to declare the “Prophet” to be a “false Prophet” or to proclaim the Truth of the Trinity, even in Islamic-majority countries (e.g., Saudi Arabia) is not exactly what leaps to mind when you think of Islamic nations. In fact, what leaps to mind is the denial of religious freedom and the systematic persecution of non-Muslims.
In fact, you might say that the UN Declaration is “Islamophobic’ since it would allow (under law) non-Muslims to persuade Muslims to convert to Christianity AND TO DO SO OPENLY AND IN PUBLIC. Is there any respectable version of Sharia law that would allow that?
If this “right” is “universal” what does that say about a religion that completely rejects it?