By Udi Greenberg (Dartmouth College) and Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins (Yale University)
We are delighted to bring you the Introduction to the Special Forum on Christianity and Human Rights that appears in the latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, by kind permission of the Journal, the University of Pennsylvania Press, and Project MUSE. You can find the Project MUSE page for this introduction here, and the entirety of volume 79, number 3 here.
The intellectual roots of human rights have been a source of much debate, but Christianity’s role in shaping the language of universal equality has been especially controversial. Historians agree that prominent Catholic philosophers, such as Jacques Maritain, were crucial in crafting and popularizing theories of rights, and that Protestant activists, such as American Protestant Frederick Nolde, were instrumental in drafting the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet the lessons that scholars draw from this genealogy are diverse. For some, such as John Nurser, history reveals Christianity as the crucial engine of the modern era’s most celebrated concept. Christians may have engaged in countless brutalities over the centuries, but the Gospel’s universal aspirations also helped bolster peaceful endeavors. Others, such as Samuel Moyn and Joan Scott, have instead claimed that the marriage of Christianity and rights reflect how deeply the language of universal equality preserved traditional hierarchies. Human rights and religious freedom, they claim, were forged by Christian Western Europeans, and were meant to combat Marxists, feminists, Muslims, and anti-colonial activists. In this provocative narrative, the concept of rights was never an equalizing force. Rather, it helped—and still helps today—sustain political, gender, and social inequalities.
This recent debate has centered on the nature of rights, but the essays assembled in this forum seek to push the discussion in a new direction. The authors explore Christian engagement with the idea of rights to better understand the scope and evolution of Christian thought over the last two centuries. Indeed, if the project of mapping human rights’ origins and ascendancy may be now reaching its conclusion, scholars still have much to say on Christianity’s seminal role in shaping modern politics, ideologies, and culture. Having long stood on the margins of modern intellectual history, thinkers who self-identified foremost as Christian—theologians, philosophers, and social theorists—have received growing attention. Protestants and Catholics alike developed comprehensive visions of economic, social, and sexual relations, and repeatedly sought to explain the Gospel’s message regarding varied topics such as Judaism, racial tensions, marriage, and international politics. These projects—which often defied the secular categories of left and right—enjoyed considerable influence, especially in Europe and North America where Christianity remained dominant. They often resonated well beyond theological seminaries and churches, inspiring state laws and policies in a variety of regimes, in colonial, democratic, fascist, or authoritarian settings. Rights often figured prominently in these efforts, as thinkers sought to explain who has what rights and under what conditions. The concept of rights therefore provides a crucial window to an expansive and ongoing intellectual effort.
What is more, exploring the ways in which Christian thinkers grappled with rights helps chart the dramatic shifts that characterized Christianity in the modern era. While the nature and meaning of Christianity had never been stable and was always contested, the centuries that followed the French Revolution brought a new kind of turmoil. Protestants and Catholics confronted a proliferation of ideological projects rooted in non-religious and even atheist assumptions, such as utilitarian morality, racial science, and socialist revolution. For many Christians, secularism’s assumed corrosive impact necessitated a recalibration of Christian life. Many came to believe that if the Gospel were to triumph, the churches would have to rethink their approach to state institutions, foster new alliances with other Christian denominations, and even treat other religious groups (such as Jews or Confucians) as legitimate. Debating the scope and nature of rights stood at the heart of these efforts. Tracing the trajectories of these disputes helps shed light on the complex redrawing of Christianity’s content and borders.
The following essays uncover diverse Christian reflections on rights, from their first sustained appearance in the late eighteenth century until their zenith in the mid-twentieth century. They examine how a panoply of thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic, largely Catholic but also Protestant, utilized rights to rethink Christianity. Taken together, they offer new ways of understanding the transformations of Christian thought in one of its most dynamic and fascinating periods.