'The Glorious Liberty of the Children of God': Toward a Christian Defense of Human Rights

Journal of Christian Legal Thought (Forthcoming)

CSLR Research Paper No. Forthcoming

9 Pages Posted: 25 May 2023

See all articles by John Witte

John Witte

Emory University School of Law

Date Written: 2023


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 a 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.

Keywords: Law, religion, law and religion, human rights, Enlightenment, liberty, Western legal tradition, Christianity, Church History

Suggested Citation

Witte, John, 'The Glorious Liberty of the Children of God': Toward a Christian Defense of Human Rights ( 2023). Journal of Christian Legal Thought (Forthcoming), CSLR Research Paper No. Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4458401 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4458401

John Witte (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

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