Christian Morality and Human Rights: Standing Outside the Prison of Culture


William Wilberforce

British abolitionist William Wilberforce refused to accept the cultural morality of his day.

I’ve been reading Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner’s new book, City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era, and thus far it has been an enjoyable read.

I’ll write a full review in the near future, but for the moment I just wanted to highlight a few of the book’s ideas about the “morality of human rights.” There is an entire chapter on the subject, in which the authors argue that although we should be careful about how religion feeds into politics, we should also recognize that religion should play a role in shaping our political understanding of human rights.

This view is based on the following understanding about human nature and morality:

What truly marks human beings is the tendency to care for self, family, clan, tribe, race, religion, nation. To care for every human being would appear to require a moral law. To sacrifice for the rights of other human beings — merely because they are human beings — would appear to require a holy law.

Gerson and Wehner go on to explain that “the contribution of religion to this [moral law] debate is narrow but essential,” meaning that although plenty of religious beliefs may not yield to political synthesis (e.g. eschatology, ecclesiology), some of them do and must (e.g. “beliefs about human worth, human nature, and human destiny”).

As the authors explain:

The Christian ideal of human dignity is important precisely because it transcends culture. It has proven its ability to stand in judgment of many cultures, including our own. The theologian Max Stackhouse calls this “one of the greatest revolutions in the history of humanity”… Religious people have a unique ability to stand outside the prison of culture and call attention to a set of universal ideals. In other words, they can represent, in the kingdoms of this world, the values of another Kingdom.

This view obviously rejects any sort of cultural or religious relativism (note the referral to “a set of universal ideals”). For the Christian, there is a right and wrong that applies to everyone, regardless of culture, race, or tradition. Therefore, as Christians we need to determine what those ideals are and where the line should be drawn as far as when or whether political systems can violate such ideals.

Finding the balance is tricky, but we cannot use that as an excuse to abandon the synthesis altogether. To do so would risk the gaining or retaining of prominence by a host of intolerable evils.

To show how a proper dose of religious engagement can have a positive role in informing (or transforming) our cultural views of morality, Gerson and Wehner point to the abolitionist movements of both England and America. Plenty of economists have argued that slavery declined due to practical economic concerns (and there is merit to that argument), but Gerson and Wehner emphasize that without the countercultural and profoundly religious morality of the abolitionists, slavery would have been largely untouched.

To show how a complete lack of religious engagement in politics can lead to a misaligned view of morality, the authors point to Nazi Germany, in which the majority of Christians (Bonhoeffer not included) stood by and let the political ideologues execute their morbid vision with success.

City of Man by Michael Gerson and Peter WehnerAs Gerson and Wehner explain:

The holocaust indicted a highly sophisticated and educated European society — along with the very idea that higher education and cultural sophistication would act as brakes on evil. It indicted other nations that did little, even after the crimes became obvious. It indicted German Christians who were often indifferent or complicit.

We can remove religious ideas from the public sphere altogether and focus only on merely “secular” or “cultural” goals, but who is to say that the resulting system will produce a proper moral outlook in Christian terms (or even in “more enlightened” secular ones)? Who is to say that a “holy law” can’t play a valuable a role in promoting a truly just society, even for the nonreligious or non-Christian members therein?

My question is this: To what extent should our religious beliefs influence our political beliefs about human rights? In a pluralistic democracy, how do we express such religious concerns in our policymaking without being dogmatic or discriminatory?

What do you think?

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