Do Christians believe in freedom and human rights?


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Ian Leigh wrote this article while Professor of Law at Durham University. His teaching and research interests span public law, comparative law and human rights. His books include Rex Ahdar and Ian Leigh Religious Freedom in the Liberal State (Oxford University Press, 2005), a second edition of which is in preparation for 2012.

Do Christians believe in freedom and human rights? It is a fair question to ask when Christians appear to oppose many claims based upon them, from assisted suicide to same-sex marriage. The answer we give depends, of course, on what we think freedom is. 

True Freedom

In much contemporary thinking freedom is valued because it exalts individual autonomy- personal control over the ability to do what we choose without interference from the state or others. Radical claims for the legal recognition of autonomy are now influencing legislation and caselaw to an unprecedented degree, especially in the fields of equality and medical ethics. Autonomous moderns assert in the language of rights control over the timing and manner of their death and for their sexual lifestyles to be tolerated, if not positively approved, by other people, to take just two current examples.

The question 'what is freedom for?' is an almost heretical one that much of contemporary political liberalism studiously avoids by treating freedom as intrinsically good rather than the opportunity for good. In thus defining freedom as individual autonomy it refuses to rank the choices that people make in using their freedom and disallows judgment by others on another person's choices or lifestyles.

Arguably it is a mistake, however, to conflate freedom with self-centred individualism. Christians have their own different and distinctive reasons for valuing freedom. It is interesting that Jesus neatly reverses the orthodoxy of classical Liberal thought. John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty (1859) that freedom would lead to human advancement as it enabled experimentation, leading to the discovery of truth in the marketplace of ideas. Jesus, by contrast, promises: 'Then you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free' (Jn. 8:32). Freedom follows discovery of truth not vice versa- suggesting that freedom means something different here.

The New Testament perspective is that freedom is found in Christ but –paradoxically - only by surrendering fully to His claims and control (summed up in His words "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it": Mt. 16:25). For Christians the purpose of freedom is to live for Christ. Consequently Paul in Romans chapter 6 warns against forfeiting this freedom by returning to a life of self-gratification or self-enslavement, urging his readers instead to be 'slaves to righteousness'.

This perspective bears fruit in the public realm too. When policy is based on individual autonomy it can ultimately militate against true human freedom.

Christians, then, have a distinctive insight to offer on the nature of freedom. It is a mistake to see the barriers to individual freedom as only external. The most profound are those within and it is these among others that Christ can liberate people from -whether enslavement takes the form of addiction or the pursuit of wealth, power or pleasure. A critique from a Christian understanding of freedom is a valuable corrective to the emphasis on personal autonomy that dominates much public discussion.

Human Rights

Much confusion also surrounds human rights.

In many Christian circles human rights have a bad name, principally because of some of the uses they are put to. For some these taint the entire human rights project as a kind of modern tower of Babel[1]: a vain and idolatrous monument to excessive individualism that is in danger of imminent collapse due to overblown claims built on inadequate foundations. Surely, it is argued, obligations are the cornerstone of morality and not rights?

Modern Christians are in danger here of throwing the baby out with the bath water. In an important recent book Justice: Rights and Wrongs [2] Yale political philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff rejects some of the excessive human rights talk yet nevertheless argues powerfully for limited human rights grounded explicitly in a Christian approach. In the process he presents a reading of the Old and New Testaments that reclaims the rich biblical heritage of rights thinking. This, Wolterstorff claims, gives a more convincing ground for believing in human rights than secular concepts such as dignity or respect. The Old Testament concern for rectifying justice (mishpat) has to be taken alongside practical moral concern for widows, orphans, the lowly and the poor which presupposes primary justice in terms of rights and wrongs, or, we might say 'righteousness' (sedeq). In his discussion of justice in the New Testament Wolterstorff presents a reading of Luke and Acts that stresses Jesus as the bringer of justice to the downtrodden, having Himself been the victim of injustice. For Wolterstorff rights are not about entitlements they are about treating human beings with correct respect.

This has important practical implications. Wolterstorff provides a powerful critique of the major attempts to give secular grounding to human rights. Kantian attempts to derive rights from rational capacity would leave Alzheimer's sufferers, for example, with a weaker case for rights than fully rational adults. In contrast Wolterstorff advances a theistic view grounded on 'a worth-imparting relation of human beings to God that does not in any way involve reference to human capacities'. '[B]eing loved by God gives a human being great worth. And if God equally and permanently loves each and every creature who bears the imago dei . …bearing that property gives to each human being who bears it the worth in which   natural human rights inhere'.[3]

Contrary to much current secular mythology, human rights are not solely the product of the Enlightenment- Values for a Godless Age in Francesca Klug's memorable phrase.[4] Rather, at least some of the historical groundwork for modern human rights was decidedly religious (specifically, Judaeo-Christian) in origin and motivation.

Historically, John Locke perhaps has as good a claim to paternity as Thomas Paine. The religious conflicts of the seventeenth century were the backdrop against which ideas of religious toleration were developed from biblical foundations, especially by Locke in his A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). For fellow Christians an attractive feature of Locke's case is the central importance which he accords to personal belief in his defence of religious toleration. Locke's case for toleration is quite different from that advanced by Liberals from John Stuart Mill onwards: the argument is grounded not on scepticism, which sees toleration as important because of the impossibility of arriving at finality in religious belief, nor on the case for diversity, which sees belief as a commodity in the marketplace - the wider the choice the better. Rather, Locke's argument is based primarily on pragmatic grounds - religious persecution is ineffective. The means available to the state only concern outward compulsion of the person and this can never produce genuine belief.

The recognition in modern human rights law of freedom to practice one's beliefs in public, to change religions, and toleration of religious minorities are all derived from the concerns articulated in Locke's Letter. Freedom of religion was then the first human right, preceding the many other civil and political rights encapsulated in the later Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Declaration of Independence and now routinely claimed within modern constitutions. For the record, Christian thinkers were instrumental also in post-war revival of human rights and at the birth of the United Nations. The influence of the Catholic Jacques Maritain through the revival of natural law[5] on the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is well-documented, for example.

Far from the foundational concepts of the modern liberal state being the exclusive intellectual property of rationalists, as is sometimes claimed, they owe their origin to the development of religious toleration and were derived from theological debate. The very notions of a secular realm and a separation of church and state- now often deployed against Christians- were derived historically from certain understandings of Christianity.[6]

Religious Freedom in the Contemporary State

Faced with strident (if ahistorical) claims about the secular foundations of the modern state and human rights contemporary believers can feel caught between God and Caesar. The options appear to be invidious. Either they can reject the entire system of human rights as antithetical to their beliefs at a foundational level and risk forfeiting its protection. Or they can assert claims to religious freedom as part of the 'overlapping consensus' within what they perceive to be an essentially alien (and perhaps hostile) belief system. Either way there is no guarantee that freedom of religion will trump other competing rights. Jesus' enigmatic question when asked about paying taxes-  'whose portrait is this?' [7] - captures this dilemma precisely.

The injunction to render to God what is God's and to Caesar what is Caesar's might appear to lend some support for the treatment of religious allegiance as a privatised matter in the way that is often urged by secularists. However, the behaviour of early Christians and of Jesus himself recorded in the gospel accounts does not support the view that any such public/private divide should be accepted in the place where the state chooses to draw it. Moreover, Christians are under a clear duty to manifest their faith, rather than treating it merely as a matter of private belief. There are many clear examples in the New Testament of both Jesus and believers using scripture to persuade non-believers and to justify their actions and beliefs before religious and secular authorities. The public/ private distinction can be made in two different senses: as the boundary marker for individual freedom (including religious freedom) or as the limit of permissible state competence- a matter to be judged by believers.

In the first sense the traditional approach of the common law in England whereby (the Church of England excepted) churches are seen as voluntary, self-governing, bodies allows for a measure of religious freedom. When churches or related institutions, for example adoption agencies, claim that recognition should be given to their doctrinal beliefs by exemption from general non-discrimination principles over the treatment of women (as regards priesthood) or with regard to practising homosexuals, they are arguing for the respecting of a private sphere in this way. The whole question of legal recognition of tests of membership for faith communities and their right to discipline or expel members likewise raises issues concerning this boundary. To some extent the acceptance of such practices is implicit in the recognition of freedom of religion (which under all the human rights treaties is a collective as well as an individual right) and freedom to associate with others in order to practise one's own religion.[8] Disagreement is really about the application of public/private divide and not about its existence. To require a church to admit people who dissent from its beliefs in word or by practice in the name of human rights makes no more sense than it would in the case of a political party. What is at stake here is human rights' selectivity- non-discrimination is an important right but so too is freedom of association. Moreover, some Liberals at least are committed to diversity- a policy that requires space to be given for non-state bodies to be distinctive in their beliefs, practices and common life.[9]

Concerning the second aspect - the limit to the powers of the state- there is a clearer conflict of foundational beliefs.  For modern Liberals religious liberty is a limited, subordinate or secondary idea granted by civil society or by a constitution). Under a Christian perspective, however, it is the state which is subordinate: government is a God-given institution which operates within limits; these limits include the obligation on believers to obey God rather than men if a choice has to be made. Examples in both the Old and New Testaments show divine approval of resistance by believers of attempts by state officials to silence preaching or prevent prayer. The same tradition is reflected in Natural Law theories, from Thomas Aquinas to John Finnis.

In the New Testament state authority is treated as divinely ordained and therefore Christians are to obey the law, and pay taxes since government is a general blessing ordained by God for the benefit of  humankind (Romans 13:1-6; Titus 3:1). However, if asked to do something directly contrary to God's instruction Christians should refuse: see the example in Acts 4:19 of Peter and John who refused to be silenced when instructed by the authorities because they obeyed God not men (and see also Daniel 3: 1-30 and 6: 7-25 and Acts 12). We can understand the commands of the authorities in such cases to be ultra vires (beyond their powers) if they ask obedience of this kind.[10] We might say that such laws or orders fail to create an obligation to obey, notwithstanding the presumptive force and respect normally given to the law.

Moreover, not every action of a public official is lawful. The behaviour of Paul in Philippi who invoked his Roman citizenship against the officials (Acts 16:37) is a model for the Christian's right to insist on their civil liberties when confronted with unlawful demands. At a later point in Acts Paul used his citizenship again to appeal to Caesar with the result that he was taken to Rome for trial (Acts 23: 24-29; 28:19).  Assertion of legal rights may be one way in which evil people are restrained in the positions of power they enjoy and which others (such as those unable to help themselves e.g. the unborn, the alien, the poor, and the sick) are defended.

Christian citizens are entitled within a non-Christian state to use the flawed constitutional protections to hand,[11] although they may not assent to all aspects of their philosophical or political foundations. The reservations that many Christians harbour about international and constitutional statements of human rights should not be regarded as a fundamental objection to taking advantage of the legal protection which rights such as freedom of religion may offer.

The position of Christians as electors and as political agents is less clear on historical precedent, since we have no direct biblical parallels. Modern Britain is neither an Old Testament theocracy nor an alien Empire in which Christians are merely a persecuted minority and wholly without political power. In a democracy we are in a sense in the position of being the ruler as well as the subject. We should therefore aim to love our neighbour as ourselves through the political process. Christians will obviously differ on the specifics of a political programme, but there is no room for an attitude of disinterested withdrawal from the political process, since we are in a sense responsible before God for the laws made on our behalf. The secularist attempt to silence religious contributions to politics or public discourse in the name of a supposedly neutral principle of 'public reason' is now widely (and rightly) seen as a partisan position rather than a binding and disinterested term of political engagement.[12]

Moreover, as a minority within a Liberal society Christians are as entitled as any other group to ask for laws protecting and respecting their conscientious position when the majority take a different view, which they wish to pursue. Liberals cannot deny such protection without self-contradiction since even if they do not hold a Christian position; they are committed to respecting its integrity. The apparent concession recently by the Equality and Human Rights Commission that the interpretation of equality law in recent judgments affecting Christians has been unduly narrow is something of a recognition of this point, even if it turns out to be short-lived.[13]

For Christians freedom of religion can never be an end in its own right, nor is it a necessary condition for living a Christian life, as the continued witness of the church in the former Soviet bloc, in much of the Middle East and China demonstrate. Jesus' instructions to the church were not conditional on a favourable democratic climate; the early church thrived in a hostile climate where its religious liberties were routinely denied not just by powerful and favoured religious bodies, but also by local and other state officials, and through societal persecution. While the Bible doesn't require Christians to demand any particular form of democratic government it does require us to love our neighbour. The Bible presents an image of what is truly good for all human life and commends the God-given freedom to enjoy it. Therefore freedom of religion is an instrumental good for everyone; it protects the liberty to live as we were intended – to worship our Creator and talk about Him with everyone.

Freedom for All

Therefore, a respect for freedom of conscience and the absence of coercion in belief reflect the Christian understanding of the nature of God and His treatment of human nature. If, as Christians believe, God has given individuals freedom to respond or not to His love, then should not institutions shaped and influenced by Christians respect this same freedom?  Christians will want to campaign for laws which respect and promote this attribute of human dignity.

Respect for human dignity does not stand in conflict with the spreading of the very Gospel which provides the basis of human dignity. But where society cannot agree on what human dignity is, or indeed redefines it, then this 'human dignity' is a secondary concern for Christians to spreading the Gospel itself. An example may help to show why an ordering of principles is necessary: it is easy to imagine circumstances in which another religious group claims that their 'freedom of religion' has been infringed by public proclamation of Jesus' statement that He is the way, the truth and the life. Freedom of religious expression may in some circumstances run directly counter to a 'freedom' not to be offended through deeply-held religious and other beliefs being disturbed by others' words and actions. The Christian message of universal sin, the uniqueness of Christ, and his work of atonement and individual salvation is by nature divisive and offensive to many people. However, laws which protected people from having cherished ideas disturbed would also prevent those cherished ideas being shared. This 'freedom' from offence could not be claimed to be true freedom, and is certainly not the meaningful freedom of religion of the type which Christians wish to enjoy and want their neighbours to have the opportunity to enjoy.

Do Christians believe in freedom? Yes, but not in the same way as the world.

[1] ' Now the whole world had one common language and a common speech. ….' Genesis 11: 1-8.
[2] N. Wolterstorff, Justice, (Princeton, 2008), esp. 16 ('A Theistic Grounding of Human Rights').
[3] pp. 352-3
[4] F. Klug, Values for a Godless Age: The Story of the UK's Bill of Rights (Penguin,2000 ).
[5] J. Maritain, Rights of Man and Natural Law. (Tr. Doris C. Anson. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1943).
[6] See especially I. Benson,  'Notes Towards a (re)Definition of the "Secular" ', (2000) 33 University of British Columbia  LR 519.
[7] Mark 12:16-17 (NIV): 'They brought him the coin, and he asked them "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?" "Caesar's" they replied. Then Jesus said to them: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's".
[8] Freedom of association is protected under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
[9] D. Boucher, A Little Bit Against Discrimination (CARE, 2010).
[10] cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II Q95 A2.
[11] Christians are not, however, to be litigious (particularly among each other) since this is a poor witness: 1 Cor. 6: 1-7.
[12] Roger Twigg, Religion in Public Life: Must Faith Be Privatised? (Oxford University Press, 2007).
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