The Best Interests of the Child: Modern Lessons from the Christian Traditions
THE VOCATION OF THE CHILD, P. Brennan, ed., Eerdmans, 2008
33 Pages Posted: 16 Nov 2008
The trend toward an individualistic conception of children's interests has exacerbated the cultural fault lines between secularists and religious traditionalists, as the latter strongly associate state incursions into the family as direct threats to the maintenance of religious identity across generations. Recognizing a general religious resistance to the emerging legal conception of the child is a useful first step in placing children's rights in a broader socio-political context, but the articulation is unhelpfully vague when it comes to facilitating a more productive conversation on the legal status of the child among a citizenry whose understandings of the child have been shaped in significant part by Christianity. The vagueness emanates from the failure to discern that Christians do not engage the law's treatment of the child from a common starting point. Christians reject modern liberalism's conception of the child's best interests from a variety of theological premises regarding childhood, and these premises have diverse implications for the roles of individual autonomy, parental authority, and community identity in the realization of the child's best interests.
Accordingly, this chapter begins to trace the contours of the three primary conceptions of the child in Christian thought and their relationships to the legal understanding of the child emerging in modern liberalism. Because the liberal conception of the child is framed in terms of the child's secularly accessible best interests, the chapter outlines the relationship by articulating the prevailing Christian understandings of the foundational element of the child's best interests - i.e., the child's salvation - in the sacramental, conversional, and covenantal traditions. And to ensure a manageable scope, the inquiry will focus on the development of baptism doctrine seen in the work of a leading figure within each tradition. The secular side of the inquiry is brought into focus by analyzing the presumptions about children underlying two archetypes of modern liberal thought in this area: first, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children; and second, persistent calls by political and legal theorists to impose more stringent state limitations on parental discretion in shaping the education of their children. Taken together, these examples reveal that while Christians' resistance to modern liberalism's conception of the child is broad and deeply rooted, the scope, substance and prophetic quality of the resistance are not uniform within Christianity.
Keywords: Children's rights, family law, law and religion, parents, United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children
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