Are human rights “Christian”? – a reflection

I recently peer-reviewed an article written overtly from “a Biblical understanding of ‘human rights’” which talked of “the society that God envisages”. I was unconvinced by the arguments advanced; but the effort of analysing them led me to start mulling over once again a question that has troubled me since first I became interested in issues of law and religion: is there anything particularly “Christian” about human rights anyway? To be honest, I have my doubts.

Freedom of religion

Paul Sieghart suggests that:

“… the movement for ‘freedom of belief’ precedes every other in the history of the struggle for human rights and fundamental freedoms: in Europe, for example, it goes back to at least the sixteenth century, if not the Roman Empire”.[1]

To which my answer would be “Possibly, but only up to a point”: it all depends what you mean by “freedom of belief”.

Roger Trigg rightly states that the right to freedom of religion

“… has been explicitly advocated for the last four hundred years by Christians (such as the early Baptists Thomas Helwys in London and Roger Williams in New England), and then by the Anglican, John Locke, who influenced the American Founders such as Thomas Jefferson”.[2]

For the last four hundred years, certainly: but it was not always so. The Reformers may have been arguing for freedom for themselves to believe what they wanted to believe, to practise Christianity as they thought it should be practised and to propagate their views on religion to society at large; but very few wanted at the same time to accommodate those whose religious views were opposed to their own. Worse still, they believed that they were right and that, in persecuting their opponents, they were both doing the will of God and attempting to snatch those whom they regarded as heretics from the Everlasting Pit. And as Giles Fraser recently observed in The Guardian:

“… it is this sense of having access to the truth that makes religion the dangerous phenomenon that it so often is. Most of the terrible things human beings do to each other originate in a sense of moral conviction. We call it evil – and rightly so – but from the perspective of the perpetrator, the experience of being in this place is exactly the opposite: it feels like being right. And feeling right is one of the most powerful alibis for wickedness.”[3]

Of course, religious confession was mixed up with perceived political affiliation – so it is rather facile to argue, for example, that the penalties on recusants in England were imposed entirely for theological reasons: part of the reason for disabilities on Roman Catholics might have been that they were regarded with suspicion as potentially disloyal agents of a foreign power. But whether the reasons for disabilities on those who did not conform were theological or political or both, the end-product was persecution of religious opponents, with financial penalties at best and death (often of a particularly horrible, lingering kind) at worst. Consider, for example, the martyrdom of Margaret Clitherow, crushed to death on Good Friday 1586 for refusing to plead to what was then the crime of harbouring a Roman Catholic priest. Not that the other side was any better – as no-one with the surname Latimer, Ridley or Cranmer and even the merest smattering of Tudor history is likely to forget. Nothing much of God’s love in any of that.

Nor did Toleration come early to Great Britain. In Scotland, though he had originally supported the Solemn League and Covenant, Charles II decided that he would govern the Church of Scotland as he did the Church of England and, as part of his attempt to Anglicanise the Kirk, private gatherings for prayer and preaching – conventicles – were declared unlawful. Those who resisted were persecuted and from 1670 onward any minister caught preaching at a conventicle would be executed. So began the ‘Killing Times’, in which it is reckoned that over 18,000 Covenanters perished. Notoriously, in 1685 Margaret Wilson and Margaret McLachlan were tied to stakes in the sands at Wigton Bay to be drowned by the incoming tide. For Scottish Presbyterians the situation was not finally resolved until the ejection of James VII & II and the subsequent enactment of the Claim of Right in 1689;[4] but Episcopalians then suffered periods of disability in their turn, not least because they were suspected of Jacobite sympathies.

At about the same time in England, the so-called Clarendon Code[5] imposed considerable disabilities on Puritans and Dissenters, while Roman Catholic emancipation did not finally come about until the enactment of the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829. Toleration came even later in Sweden: Roman Catholics were simply forbidden to profess their faith at all and converts were obliged to leave the country, while under the terms of the Konventikelplakat of 13 January 1741 private religious gatherings (other than for family devotions) without the parish priest’s consent were banned – and that decree was not revoked until 1839.

Rex Ahdar and Ian Leigh conclude that:

“The contemporary acceptance of religious freedom owes comparatively little to Christian theology. The historical record is a regrettable testimony to that”.[6]

As indeed it is – though one might possibly argue that there was some degree of dissonance between the theology and the persecutions that sometimes arose in practice. And surely the difference between the “movement for ‘freedom of belief’” cited by Sieghart and the provisions of Article 9 ECHR is that the first was an assertion of one’s own right to believe and practise one’s beliefs whereas the second asserts the rights of everyone to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

The New Testament and human rights

But what, in any case, is “a Biblical understanding of ‘human rights’”? Even the most cursory examination of the New Testament evidence reveals attitudes that are impossible to reconcile with current thinking.

“Slaves [δοῦλοι], be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ…”[7]

is only one of a number NT references in a similar sense.[8] Which would not matter so much if we could simply assume that people in first-century Palestine were morally-defective semi-savages who could not be expected to know any different and that civilised, modern humanity would inevitably behave otherwise and better; but, far from being brutes, the New Testament writers were very sophisticated, while we ourselves can hardly claim to be the acme of moral perfection. But though the New Testament writers certainly knew right from wrong, some of what was “right” (or at least acceptable) for them is no longer “right” for us.[9]

What Rowan Williams has called “Christianity’s confused and uneasy relationship with the institution of slavery”[10] persisted long after New Testament times. When Roger Trigg suggests that the

“… opposition created [by the Council of Europe] between religion and rights is at odds with the assertion in the American Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights’”


he neglects to add that the “inalienable rights” recognised in the Declaration of Independence were emphatically not intended to extend to slaves or Native Americans – an oversight on the part of the Founding Fathers which, for me at least, tends to blunt the Declaration’s appeal. Moreover, the omission was reflected in the fact that the NT texts were still being used to justify slavery at the time of the American Civil War. The first and only President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, supported slavery as sanctioned by Scripture,[11] while Dr Richard Furman, one of the leaders of the Southern Baptists and himself a slave-owner, argued that:

“[t]he just and humane master who rules his slaves and provides for them, according to Christian principles, [may] rest satisfied that he is not, in holding them, chargeable with moral evil nor with acting in this respect, contrary to the genius of Christianity”.[12]

And even though the Civil War ended in 1865, by the time I was born eighty years later there was at least a handful of Americans still living who had been born into slavery.

And then there are the NT texts about the position of women and male headship – which are too well-known to be worth rehearsing here.

A religious construct or a philosophical one?

Richard Harries argues that human rights can be discovered in Creation itself:

“God creates and at once recognises the value of what He has created. Here is the foundation for a consciously Christian – and I would suggest also religious – approach to human rights. God makes man in His own image and respects the value of what He has created. He makes man – makes humanity, I should say – in His own image and respects its worth and dignity”.[13]

Further, however:

“The concept of human rights grows out of a long tradition of classical Christian thinking about morally based law which relates to all human beings by virtue of their humanity. In the pre-modern period it took effect in such declarations as that of the Magna Carta in 1215 … Nevertheless, the language of rights and its modern emphasis only really came to the fore in the 17th century and took decisive political form in the 18th”.[14]

I would go some of the way with Harries: human rights are certainly discoverable from modern Christian theology – see, for example, Roman Catholic social teaching in Pacem in Terris  but by a slow process of evolution rather than as a package inherited whole from the Early Church.

It was certainly not always like that. In Quod Aliquantum, an Apostolic Brief of 10 March 1791 directed to the French bishops taking part in the Assemblée Nationale, Pius VI condemned the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen and the principles of freedom of religion and of expression as contrary to divine law because it

“… establishes as a right of man in society this absolute freedom, which not only ensures the right not to be worried about his religious views, but which still gives this licence to think, speak, write and even to publish with impunity on matters of religion all that the most disordered imagination can suggest: a monstrous right which appears to the Assembly, however, to result from equality and natural freedom for all men”.[15]

The late Tom Bingham argued very strongly that, far from being a product of religious sensibility, human rights were essentially secular in nature, pointing out that the freedom of thought, conscience and religion guaranteed by Article 9 ECHR and Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights

“… is a right which, historically, established religions have found it very hard to accommodate and in some places still do. The reason is not far to seek. Those who believe… that the religion to which they adhere has an exclusive perception of the truth and offers an exclusive path to salvation also tend to believe, naturally enough, both that they should resist any attempt to weaken or challenge that faith and also that they should convert others to it”.[16]

Nicholas Sagovsky would go even further, suggesting that, far from being part of the Christian tradition, the notion of human rights arose

“… in opposition to the public practice of Christianity, against oppressive notions of divine order and  ‘divine justice’… It was only … with the publication in 1891 of Rerum Novarum, that the Roman Catholic Church began to promote such ‘rights’ as an expression of human dignity, and only after the Second World War, with the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948, that the Protestant and Orthodox Churches found a common voice in support of human rights”.[17]

A tentative conclusion

Almost inevitably, there is no cut-and-dried answer to the question. For myself, I tend towards the Bingham/Sagovsky end of the spectrum of opinion. “Human rights” as an aspiration can certainly be deduced from (or at least is consonant with) what most of us would now regard as mainstream twentieth- and twenty-first century Christian theology; but “human rights” as a coherent system of legal thought is largely a product of the Enlightenment. In short, though human rights are certainly “Christian” now, that has not always been the case. And whether or not such rights are “Christian”, they are certainly not particularly biblical, or at any rate not New Testament biblical: the evidence to the contrary is simply too great.


I discussed some of the above  at much greater length in  “Human Rights and the Christian Tradition: A Quaker Perspective” in N Doe and R Sandberg (eds): Law and Religion: New Horizons (Leuven, Peeters 2009). Comments  – whether or not in agreement –  are extremely welcome.

[1] Paul Sieghart: The International Law of Human Rights (Oxford, Clarendon Press 1984) 324.

[2] Roger Trigg: “How Christianity has shaped human rights for the better” (Dublin, Iona Institute 2010).

[3] Giles Fraser: “Wickedness, allied to the ‘truth’ of religious belief, can lead us to evil acts” (The Guardian 31 May 2013).

[4] Which declared that James VII & II had ‘Invaded the fundamentall Constitution of the Kingdome and altered it from a legall limited monarchy To ane arbitrary despotick power and hath Exercised the same to the subversione of the protestant religion and the violation of the lawes and liberties of the Kingdome’.

[5] Corporations Act 1661, Act of Uniformity 1662, Conventicles Act 1664, Nonconformists Act 1666 (commonly known as the Five Mile Act), Test Act 1673: see JRH Moorman, A History of the Church in England (London, A & C Black 2nd edition 1967) 252–253.

[6]  R Ahdar and I Leigh, Religious Freedom in the Liberal State (Oxford, Oxford University Press 2005) 36.

[7] Ephesians 6:5.

[8] Most obviously, the whole of Philemon; but see also, for example, Matthew 10:24–25; Colossians 3:22; 1 Timothy 6:1–2; Titus 2:9–10.

[9] And, conversely, some of the things that were “wrong” for them are no longer regarded as “wrong” by at least a significant number of us.

[10] Rowan Williams: “Religious Faith and Human Rights” – Lecture at the LSE 1 May 2008.

[11] D Rowland, Jefferson Davis, constitutionalist; his letters, papers and speeches (Jackson MS, JJ Little & Ives Company 1923) v 1 286.

[12] Quoted in WS Jenkins: Pro-Slavery Thought in the Old South (Chapel Hill NC, University of North Carolina Press 1935) 211–212.

[13] R Harries: ‘The complementarity between secular and religious perspectives of human rights’ in N Ghanea-Hercock, A Stephens and R Walden (eds), Does God Believe in Human Rights? Essays on religion and human rights (Leiden, Martinus Nijhoff 2007) 21.

[14] R Harries: “Does God believe in human rights?”: (London, Gresham College Lecture 14 January 2010).

[15] [emphasis added]: “C’est dans cette vue qu’on établit, comme un droit de l’homme en société, cette liberté absolue, qui non-seulement assure le droit de n’être point inquiété sur ses opinions religieuses, mais qui accorde encore cette licence de penser, de dire, d’écrire et même de faire imprimer impunément en matière de religion tout ce que peut suggérer l’imagination la plus déréglée : droit monstrueux, qui paraît cependant à l’Assemblée résulter de l’égalité et de la liberté naturelles à tous les hommes.”

[16] Lord Bingham of Cornhill: ‘Endowed by their Creator?’ (2005) 37 Ecc LJ 173, 181.

[17] N Sagovsky: ‘Human rights, divine justice and the churches’ in M Hill (ed): Religious Liberty and Human Rights: (Cardiff, University of Wales Press 2002) 46.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Are human rights “Christian”? – a reflection" in Law & Religion UK, 7 June 2013,

7 thoughts on “Are human rights “Christian”? – a reflection

  1. I have always considered human rights theologically deficient in the light of the crucified Christ. However, the actual outworking of the signs of the Kingdom implies the empowerment of the disempowered – as was urged upon me by lawyers I once worked for and with – “this is the only recourse these people have in this world” – the Kingdom is “now” as well as “not yet”. I think “rights” are not a proper part of the discourse of theological ethics – no-one has a right to be saved, yet Christ died for all – but are rather part of a Kingdom discourse “the world we were born to be part of”. Human realisations of rights are subject to “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” but also reflect the fact that we are all made in God’s image.

    • I think that that’s a major part of the problem: historically, the emphasis has been on duties rather than on rights. The 1983 Codex Iuris Canonici, for example, always talks of “duties and rights” rather than “rights and duties”. And the command to “love your neighbour as yourself” is a duty laid on the believer rather than a “right to be loved” conferred on the putative neighbour.

      From my own perspective, as Quakers we are bidden to recognise “that of God in every person” – and whatever else we may disagree on, I reckon that all of us sign up to that. In which case, you don’t recognise the Divine in someone else by paying them tuppence a kilo for their coffee beans, still less by locking them up without trial and throwing away the key. So recognition of the Divine in everyone implies that everyone has a right to respect by virtue of that fact that they are in some sense a manifestation of the Divine, even if it’s sometimes extremely difficult to discern. It’s not very far from that position to some kind of recognition of human rights: it’s the other side of the coin.

  2. Very interesting article, thank you! For the record, and this doesn’t detract at all from the arguments, some of the US founding fathers were not happy that slavery wasn’t abolished in the US founding documents. It is exactly what Benjamin Franklin was thinking about when he looked at a chair with half of a sun depicted and wondered if it was the sun rising or the sun setting. It couldn’t be worked out because Virginia was too powerful politically. And yet, two of the most prominent Virginians, Washington and Jefferson, clearly knew that slavery was wrong, but did nothing about it.

    It is amazing that injustice can be perpetuated by the few against the many. And how much effort is required to achieve a shift. I think about that in light of England’s issues with women bishops and equal marriage.

    • Thanks for your kind words. As to slavery and the Founding Fathers, not only did Jefferson not do anything about it: he owned slaves himself. That, for me at least, has always diminished his other considerable achievements.

      As to women as bishops, though, one of the many consolations of being a Quaker is that it is emphatically not my problem!

  3. Pingback: June round-up – Green Christian

  4. Pingback: google

  5. Pingback: Recent queries and comments – mid-January 2018 | Law & Religion UK

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *