Every other year I teach a class called the Global Politics of Human Rights, which begins with a unit on diverse foundations for human rights. We read Nicholas Wolterstorff to explore Christian foundations, Abdulaziz Sachedina to explore Islamic foundations, and Jack Donnelly to explore foundations built on social consensus. At the end of that unit a set of students plans, with no direction from me, an entire interactive class period organized around the question, What is the most effective foundation for human rights? Students always express moderate amounts of terror at the way the question is worded. I receive a flurry of emails from the student facilitators that all boil down to one key question, “What do you mean by ‘effective’?” I always smile, shrug, and reply that it is their job to interpret the question. In fact it is the point of the whole exercise.
The first time I ever tried this experiment, the student facilitators walked into class on the day of their presentation wearing black T-shirts and black pants, and had severe frowns on their faces. One student read a proclamation stating that from this point forward, our class would be a value-neutral environment and that all religious symbols would be confiscated. They proceeded to search bags, take sweatshirts with Calvin College’s logo on the front, confiscate electronics with Bible apps, and seize religious jewelry. They then split the class into three groups, one Christian, one Muslim, and one “secular.” Assuming the identity of the assigned group, the students then were challenged to engage in a debate about which group would have most likely perpetuated such a seizure. The student facilitators designed the exercise to help the other students challenge their own assumptions about “other types” of societies.
The students in this class were predominately Christian, with 40 percent international students. Regardless of their faith or national identity, each student adopted their assigned identity with passion and advocated for their assigned perspective. It was an incredibly tense and provocative debate. Once the students were released from their assigned identity, we spent time reflecting as a class on the question of the day. Effectiveness could have been interpreted in multiple ways. For example, an effective foundation could be the foundation capable of building broad consensus across religious, cultural, and political boundaries. But if “effective” means “most willing to protect individual liberties,” as the student facilitators interpreted the term, which foundation has the most potential to protect? How do we ensure that all are protected, regardless of their political system or religious identity?
The Christian Heritage Of Human Rights
All of us have heard a version of this question. More broadly, if Christians, or Muslims, or any other religiously oriented group spearheads a movement, does this undermine its application to all? Do religious motives increase or undermine effectiveness?
Christian Human Rights, by Samuel Moyn, provides some additional historical tools to engage in this ongoing and controversial debate, even though it is not the main goal
of his project. As a historian, Moyn seeks to show that the birth of human rights in the time period surrounding World War II was a “project of the Christian right, not the secular left.” This is a controversial claim, because we think of human rights as a liberal, secular project that transcends religious, cultural, and national boundaries. The whole point of the international human rights regime (overlapping treaties, institutions, and norms) is to protect individuals regardless of their location or identity. Even though we know in practice the regime often fails at its goals, we hold up as sacrosanct that goal of protecting individuals. The human rights project connects the individual to the international system regardless of the state. And it is supposed to accomplish this from a value-neutral standpoint.
But Moyn seeks to show that in the “beginning,” when human rights language was first being used to generate a political advocacy campaign, it was not a value-neutral liberal project intended to perpetuate individual liberation or human emancipation. In fact, Moyn claims that in the 1930s and 1940s, when Europe was struggling to understand how to restrain tyrannical governments, human rights language as we know it arose in an attempt to cultivate moral restraint by protecting religious communities from the control of the state. Moyn chronicles human rights as a primarily Christian project, sparked by the Catholic Church’s public articulation of the concept of the “human person,” and consolidated when this concept was incorporated into the preamble of the 1937 Irish Constitution in the words “dignity of the human person.” In fact, in chapter 4 Moyn argues that the key freedom around which
Christian groups united in this pivotal era, religious freedom, had less to do with protecting the individual than protecting religion from a much-feared encroachment of secularization on society.
Most readers, even those deeply immersed in human rights literature, will be unfamiliar with the story he tells. I was certainly intrigued. But I also found myself vacillating between captivation and skepticism. For example, I questioned whether the 1930s, and especially the 1937 Irish Constitution, was really the “beginning” or even the most influential instance of Christians’ public use of human rights language. For example, Moyn claims that “there was little prior basis for the novelty of Ireland’s constitutional preamble, whatever the circulation of the word [human dignity] in world affairs, including one or two constitutional articles, before then.” The specific phrasing in the Irish preamble reads as follows: “and seeking to promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice, and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured.”
While the use of this specific phrasing might have been unique for European constitutions of the time, it certainly was not the first use of Christian conceptions of human rights in founding documents. For example, the US Declaration of Independence, which is considered part of the organic law of the United States and is cited as such by the Supreme Court, in the preamble similarly locates the worth of the individual in the dignity endowed by the Creator with the words, “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.” Moreover, the Bill of Rights lays out specific provisions for protecting individual liberty, within this understanding of the worth of the individual in relationship to a creator. Although Moyn does briefly mention this context for the language of human dignity, he does not place much importance on it.
Perhaps this focus reflects his desire to chronicle this particular moment in transwar history, or even a desire to trace a concept of the human person from the Catholic Church through its application to European constitutional development. Thus Moyn’s goals could more accurately be described as desiring to trace specifically how the Catholic Church shifted its use of the concept of the “human person” and its political influence in deploying this concept during the transwar period instead of claiming to trace the general Christian origins of human rights concepts. Because even in the time period Moyn chronicles, the United States, with its evolving understanding of rights endowed by a Creator, was highly influential in the development of international human rights documents, norms, and activism.
Christian Rights And Religious Minorities
In the end, Moyn’s book left me pondering the implications of his findings for human rights protections. Does his assertion that the Christian foundation for human rights was really more about protecting against encroaching secularization than protecting individual liberties change the way we think about human rights protections? Or, as I posed the question to my students, what is the most effective foundation for human rights? Does a Christian foundation for human rights undermine the protection of individual liberties? Moyn argues that in the European context, where the European Court of Human Rights has often ruled against Muslim appeals to religious freedom, the religious foundations of the human rights movement has led to public “secularism that is more discriminatory than inclusionary.” In other words, the Christian roots of human rights in Europe have undermined the protection of individual liberty, especially when it comes to religious freedom.
Wolterstorff would disagree, not with the historical trajectory necessarily, but with the potential for human rights with a Christian foundation. In fact, in his book Journey Toward Justice, he claims that human rights based on anything other than the Creator’s dignity reflected in his created beings is sure to fail. Secular human rights formulations often point to the reasoning capacities of humans as evidence of dignity that must be protected. Humans are different from other life forms because they use their reasoning capacity to persuade others in the context of community. This capacity becomes the critical foundation for political communities that arise, the very political communities from which individuals need to be protected. For Wolterstorff, this understanding of human dignity is insufficient because it excludes certain humans. If our dignity is based on reasoning capacities, what do we do with humans who have either lost their reasoning capacities (Alzheimer’s patients for example), or with humans who have cognitive impairment? In a Reformed worldview, humans have dignity because the Creator endowed them with dignity. In Wolterstorff’s framing, humans have dignity because a loving Creator gifted them with dignity. If the Creator is removed from the formulation, you lose the dignity of humanity.
Moyn misses an opportunity to speak into this ongoing debate. How do the Christian roots of human rights, as he has formulated them, shape the ways we can build consensus around human rights protections? Because the reality is that many states have signed the UN Declaration on Human Rights, and a host of treaties under its provisions, but regularly violate the terms of the treaties with little to no consequences. This is particularly the case with religious protection and other religiously oriented practices like female genital mutilation. Do explicitly Christian origins, to the exclusion of other perspectives, allow some states to claim their interests were not represented and that they are therefore not responsible for adhering to culturally defined human rights? In other words, does a Christian formulation of human rights based on the dignity of the human person undermine application of the human rights regime to non-Christian groups? Moreover, how can Christian roots help us mediate between conflicting rights like religious freedom and gender-based rights, especially when secularists would claim that Christians have a notso- hidden agenda in even engaging in the debate? Because this is the crucial question that remains unsettled, both in my human rights course and in the literature surrounding the topic.