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Human rights, Christianity, Western tradition, Rights claims, Churches


It will come as a surprise to some human rights lawyers to learn that Christianity was a deep and enduring source of human rights and liberties in the Western legal tradition. Our elementary textbooks have long taught us that the history of human rights began in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Human rights, many of us were taught, were products of the Western Enlightenment—creations of Grotius and Pufendorf, Locke and Rousseau, Montesquieu and Voltaire, Hume and Smith, Jefferson and Madison. Rights were the mighty new weapons forged by American and French revolutionaries who fought in the name of political democracy, personal autonomy, and religious freedom against outmoded Christian conceptions of absolute monarchy, aristocratic privilege, and religious establishment. Rights were the keys forged by Western liberals to unchain society from the shackles of a millennium of the church’s oppression of society and domination of the state, and centuries of religious warfare. Human rights were the core ingredients of the new democratic constitutional experiments of the later eighteenth century forward. The only Christians to have much influence on the development of human rights, the conventional story goes, were a few early Church Fathers who decried pagan Roman persecution, a few brave medieval writers who defied papal tyranny, and a few early modern Anabaptists who debunked Catholic and Protestant persecution. But these exceptions prove the rule, according to many human rights scholars: Christianity as a whole, they argue, was an impediment to the development and expansion of human rights—doubly so in our day when religious freedom and other fundamental rights are often counterposed.

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The Journal of Christian Legal Thought