IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Religion and the Origins of Human Rights

In his “Human Rights and the American Tradition,” Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. gave a classic analysis of the role that the concept of human rights has played in American history. Let us look at its opening theme: the equation between equality and human rights—“roughly the idea that all individuals are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness on this earth.” Schlesinger discounts the role of “the so called Judeo-Christian tradition” in promoting the appreciation of such rights:  

In fact the great religious ages were notable for their indifference to human rights in the contemporary sense—not only for their acquiescence in poverty, inequality, and oppression, but for their enthusiastic justification of slavery, persecution, torture and genocide. 

Christianity assigned to human misery an honored and indispensable role in the drama of salvation. The trials visited on mankind in this world were conceived as ordained by the Almighty in order to test sinful mortals. From the religious perspective, nothing that took place on earth mattered in comparison to what must take place hereafter. The world was but an inn, so what difference could it make if the food was poor or the innkeeper a brute? . . .

No doubt the idea of natural rights has classical antecedents, among, for example, the Stoics. But humanitarianism—the notion that natural rights have immediate, concrete and universal application—is a product of the last four centuries. Tocqueville persuasively attributed the humanitarian ethic to the rise of the idea of equality. In aristocratic societies, he wrote, those in the upper caste hardly believed that their inferiors “belong to the same race.” When medieval chroniclers “relate the tragic end of a noble, their grief flows apace; whereas they tell you at a breath and without wincing of massacres and tortures inflicted on the common sort of people.” . . . 

Equality thus bred “sympathy, which Dr. Johnson defined as “the consciousness that we have the same nature with the sufferer, that we are in danger of the same distresses.” This was a novel thought, and the cult of sympathy made it increasingly difficult to dismiss the less fortunate as creatures of some other race. The upper caste and the churches began at last to attend to the condition of the enslaved, the poor, and the mad. It was the age of equality that saw the decline of religious persecution, the abolition of torture and of public executions, the emancipation of the slaves.

It would be unfair to leave it at that, for Protestant Christianity might fairly be seen as contributing to a more humane code of war. So did the American physician Benjamin Rush conclude in 1792, in his essay “On Punishing Murder by Death.” Rush attributed the "material change for the better" in the world over the “last two hundred years” to “the influence of Christianity upon the hearts of men” (while adding that this influence was “unacknowledged” by common opinion). Six changes were especially notable:  

“lst. In rescuing women and children from being the objects of the desolutions of war in common with men. 2dly. In preventing the destruction of captives taken in battle, in cold blood.  3dly. In protecting the peaceable husbandman from sharing in the carnage of war. 4thly. In producing an exchange of prisoners, instead of dooming them to perpetual slavery. 5thly. In avoiding the invasion or destruction, in certain cases, of private property. 6thly. In declaring all wars to be unlawful but such as are purely defensive.”  Rush, Selected Writings, 51.

Consider, too, the reflections of John Adams in the course of the American Revolution contrasting the barbarous code of antiquity with the "divine excellence" of Christian doctrines. Throughout “the whole Roman History,” wrote Adams in 1777,

revenge was esteemed a generous, and an heroic passion. Nothing was too good for a Friend or too bad for an Enemy. Hatred and Malice, without Limits, against an Enemy, was indulged, was justified, and no Cruelty was thought unwarrantable. Our Saviour taught the Immorality of Revenge, and the moral Duty of forgiving Injuries, and even the Duty of loving Enemies. Nothing can shew the amiable, the moral, and divine Excellency of these Christian Doctrines in a stronger Point of Light, than the Characters and Conduct of Marius and Sylla, Cæsar, Pompey, Anthony and Augustus, among innumerable others.

Many so-called Christians today are more likely to embrace Roman virtus and glory than the Christian doctrines that Adams or Rush set forth. Too bad that so many of its friends, and so many of its enemies, do not see this point. 

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Schlesinger’s piece first appeared in Foreign Affairs in 1977 and was revised and expanded for his outstanding collection of essays, The Cycles of American History (Boston, 1986).