Religion has fallen on hard times across the West—at least in the media, the major universities, and our other culture-shaping institutions.
But there’s one form of religion today that’s praised and promoted widely, and that’s the religion of human rights. Human rights might be secular. But to the secular, they couldn’t be more sacred.
In the words of British legal academic Anthony Julius, the human rights movement “is the new secular religion of our time.” Samuel Moyn, law professor at Yale University, calls them “the premier values of the day”.
“For most of time, rights were a privilege for the powerful, and little more.”
This elevation of human rights to such a holy status has made many believers, Christian and otherwise, quite suspect of the whole movement—rightly so perhaps.
But when Christians take such a combative stance, they forget the distinctly Christian origins of human rights. In fact, like so much that we take for granted in our secular age, human rights simply wouldn’t exist apart from the civilising power of Jesus Christ.
It would be foolish to argue that Christianity alone has shaped human rights as we know them. Likewise, only a fool could deny church abuses of human rights through the centuries.
“Human rights simply wouldn’t exist apart from the civilising power of Jesus Christ.”
But if all this is true, then far more foolish is the claim that human rights were some kind of inevitable discovery—a ‘fact of nature’ that our human family always would have stumbled upon.
Most cultures for most of time, including many in our present day, simply do not accept human rights as a given. They were a privilege for the powerful, and little more.
An honest look at history reveals that human rights have been profoundly shaped by Christian ideas. Consider ten moments of time that make this clear.
1. The Creation of Humanity
Whatever you believe about the first chapter of Genesis, there’s no denying that the concept of the imago dei or the ‘image of God’ has played a big role in shaping the West’s understanding of human rights.
Genesis 1:26-27 says, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness… So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”
Inspired by these words, a despised Christian minority ended the barbaric practice of infanticide in the Roman Empire, and stood against the ancient slave trade.
“God created man in his own image.”—Genesis 1:27
Inspired by these words, William Wilberforce finally abolished slavery in the British empire, and Martin Luther King Jr. fought bravely for civil rights in the United States.
Inspired by these words, Mother Teresa served the poor in India’s slums for fifty years, and Nelson Mandela dismantled apartheid in South Africa.
In fact, new research has made a very politically incorrect discovery. Christian missionaries exporting the idea of imago dei to colonial lands were the single greatest force in creating free and stable democracies in the developing world.
2. The Mosaic Law
Human rights today have been deeply influenced by the Old Testament scriptures—especially the law of Moses.
In The Evolution of the West, Nick Spencer calls the Mosaic Law’s focus on widows, orphans, aliens and the poor ‘obsessive’, and argues that in ancient Jewish thought, to deprive these groups of justice is actually to deprive God of his rights.
Says Spencer, “If one acknowledges this—that God, in effect, has rights—one has made a crucial move towards recognising natural human rights.”
“Today we consider rights fixed or ‘inalienable’. This idea is not a modern invention.”
And Nicholas Wolterstorff, philosopher at Yale University, makes the case that if God has such rights, then so do humans who are made in his image.
So, for example, he says, “The proscription against murder is grounded not in God’s law but in the worth of the human being. All who bear God’s image possess, on that account, an inherent right not to be murdered.”
Today we don’t make human rights dependent on something that humans do or possess—instead, we consider them fixed or ‘inalienable’. This idea is not a modern invention; it can clearly be traced to the Jewish scriptures.
3. The Life of Jesus
Jesus’ treatment of women, children, and society’s down-and-outs was remarkable in an ancient context.
The way Jesus spoke to women, healed them, taught them, praised them and involved them in his ministry made it clear that he saw women as equals. And he broke many social conventions to do so.
Ancient wisdom said that children should be seen but not heard. Yet on this backdrop, Jesus welcomed children and embraced them. He had scathing words for any who would harm a child. And he frequently praised children and their faith as the ideal for grown-ups to imitate.
“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”—Jesus
Jesus is still admired today for the care he showed to the sick, poor and dying. The gospels are peppered with too many of these stories to recount. In fact, Jesus so identified with the world’s forgotten that to feed, clothe and care for ‘the least of these’ was—in his words—to do the same for him.
For all these reasons, Wolterstorff argues that human rights ultimately trace their origins to Jesus. “Being loved by God,” he says, which was one of Jesus central teachings, “gives to each human being who bears it the worth in which natural human rights inhere.”
Or in the words of author John Ortberg, “It’s really Jesus who brought that notion of the dignity and worth of every human being from little Israel to the much larger world.”
4. The Early Church Fathers
Historians also see the beginnings of human rights language in the early church fathers.
The most famous perhaps is Basil of Caesarea, who in a 4th century sermon claimed that the wealth of the rich in fact belonged to the poor.
“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.”
“Historians see the beginnings of human rights language in the early church fathers.”
John Chrysostom, living at the same time, also taught that generosity is a duty and not merely a choice. “Even if he is the most wicked of all men, let us free him from hunger. We show mercy on him not because of his virtue but because of his misfortune.”
And consider that the only criticism of institutional slavery that has reached us from the ancient world was also from an early church father, Gregory of Nyssa, who asked, “Who can buy a man, who can sell him, when he is made in the likeness of God?”
5. The Middle Ages
Our next stop through the sweep of human rights history is the Middle Ages. In this period, canon lawyers of the Catholic church developed the idea of natural rights, a concept that is simply taken for granted today.
In the 1280s, for example, Godfrey of Fontaines argued that if a beggar stole a loaf of bread from his rich neighbour, he couldn’t be charged for theft since he had a natural right to that bread in order to survive:
“Each one is bound by the law of nature to sustain his life, which cannot be done without exterior goods, therefore also by the law of nature each has dominion and a certain right in the common exterior goods of this world which right cannot be renounced.”
“Canon lawyers of the Catholic church developed the idea of natural rights.”
By the year 1300, Godfrey and other Christian thinkers had recognised at least five natural rights: the right of the poor to the necessities of life; the right of self preservation; rights to property; the right to a fair trial; and the right of self-defence.
These are remarkable advances for a period often dubbed ‘the Dark Ages’.
6. The Reformation
Another momentous step towards modern human rights took place during the Reformation—a social and spiritual revolution in 16th century Europe.
The Catholic church had been selling indulgences. Put crudely, they were exchanging the promise of heaven for money. A monk called Martin Luther was enraged, believing the church had come to wield far too much power over the inner lives of its people:
“For over the soul God can and will let no one rule but Himself… therefore, where temporal power presumes to prescribe laws for the soul it encroaches upon God’s government and only misleads and destroys the souls.”
The battlecry of the Reformers was salvation by grace alone. All have sinned—even priests and bishops. Yet all who believe are priests unto God—even beggars and outcasts.
“Reformers set the stage for the idea of individual freedom.”
Their great vision was to see the Bible in the languages of the people so that every soul could discern God’s truth independently, so that every conscience could answer to heaven directly, and so that every heart could know God personally.
The Reformers had set out to redefine faith. But in the process, historians now say that they also redefined the dignity of the human person, endowed the self with moral authority, and set the stage for the idea of individual freedom.
According to Joseph Loconte, Professor of History at The Kings College in New York City, “Virtually every important defence of religious freedom in the 17th century—the liberal politics of William Penn, Roger Williams, Pierre Bayle, and John Locke—took Luther’s insights for granted.”
The Reformation has had such a profound impact on our understanding of human rights today that even the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights uses language that tips the hat to Luther and his vision.
7. The Birth of the Modern World
“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.”
So run the most familiar words of the United States Declaration of Independence (1776).
Among the other political documents that have profoundly shaped our modern world are the Magna Carta (1215), the English Bill of Rights (1689) and the United States Bill of Rights (1789).
“All men are created equal [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”—United States Declaration of Independence
Collectively, these are the precursors of today’s human rights documents. And all of them arose in distinctly Christian lands, resting on and expressing Christian ideas.
Some would include in this list France’s more secular Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789). And to be sure, not all of America’s founding fathers were of orthodox Christian faith.
Still, it’s hard to deny that Christendom was the greenhouse in which all of these important documents came to flower.
8. The World at War
The two world wars of the 20th century caused unimaginable devastation to the human family. Because of this, the wars were also a cause for deep reflection on what it means to be human.
Samuel Moyn, an expert on human rights from Yale University, explains that during this period, the idea of the ‘human person’ was becoming central in Christian political thought.
Evidence of this can be seen, he says, in the new Irish Constitution, drawn up in 1937, which began: “In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions of both men and States must be referred.”
The constitution went on: “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…” Moyn observes that never before in history had the word dignity been used this way in reference to humans.
“During the war years, the human rights conversation was being led by the church.”
In the same year, Pope Pius XI issued With Burning Concern, an encyclical written in German and smuggled into Germany to decry Hitler’s Nazi regime, declaring:
“Man, as a person, possesses rights that he holds from God and which must remain, with regard to the collectivity, beyond the reach of anything that would tend to deny them, to abolish them, or to neglect them.”
These words, argues Moyn, along with Pope Pius XII’s Christmas message of 1942, were landmark declarations about human dignity. In other words, during the war years, the human rights conversation was being led by the church.
9. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Surely the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a secular document? This is certainly what its drafters set out to achieve, in order to give it widespread religious and cultural appeal.
But the University of Notre Dame’s Iain Benson points out that some of its key framers were followers of Jesus:
“The major proponents of human rights as it was developed and codified in the twentieth century were themselves Christians—people like Jacques Maritain from France and Charles Malik in Lebanon.”
“Some of the Declaration’s key framers were followers of Jesus.”
Nick Spencer, author of The Evolution of the West, contends that not only did Christians help draft the document, but that the ideas it contains betray their Christian influence:
“In the sense that the Declaration of Human Rights doesn’t draw explicitly on any religious doctrines of course it’s thoroughly secular, but if you lift the lid you find an awful lot of Christian workings underneath the bonnet.”
10. The Post-War Period
The tragedies of the World War I and II kept the nations of Europe focussed on the issue of human rights over the following decades. Moyn observes that in this period, just as they had earlier, Christians once again led the charge:
“Conservative Christian thought bore the language and logic of human rights in the immediate pre-war and war years and it was generally conservative Christian thinkers and parties that nurtured it in the post-war period.”
Moyn calls this “the last European golden age for the Christian faith,” arguing that the Christian Democratic parties that came to power between World War II and the 1960s played a key role in embedding human rights in global politics.
The One Who Gave Up His Rights
Today the tides are shifting. English philosopher Roger Scruton has 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’.”
Some may call this progress. But we’ve got to ask the question: if human rights are in large measure the fruit of Christian ideas, what is their future as those Christian roots continue to die?
Maybe there’s another set of ideas that can sustain human rights in the modern world.
“Followers of Jesus have played a central role in framing human rights and making them global.”
But that’s a big maybe. Because to date, what has sustained them through time—what has influenced them more than anything else—is Jesus.
In the words of Samuel Moyn, “No one interested in where human rights came from can afford to ignore Christianity.”
From the earliest days of the church, through the Middle Ages and the Reformation and into the modern world, followers of Jesus have played a central role in framing human rights and making them global.
“No one interested in where human rights came from can afford to ignore Christianity.”—Samuel Moyn
Followers of Jesus did this for the simple reason that they were following Jesus.
Let it be remembered that in his mission to earth, Jesus’ ultimate act was to lay down his life to redeem the world. In that great sacrifice, he declared the immeasurable value of every human life.
In that sacrifice, he gave up his rights entirely—so that we might have ours.
Originally published as Ten Reasons Our Human Rights Come From Jesus at the Canberra Declaration.