Human Rights and Modern Christianity – Historical Perspectives

Christianity has its own rather difficult history in relation to modern human rights. While reluctance to the ideas of ‘human rights’ and ‘human dignity’ dominated the theology of the main church bodies well into the 20th century, the situation drastically changed after 1945. Since the 1970’s, then, the debate on ‘human rights’ and ‘human dignity’ is at the core of theological ethics. The conference  ‘Difficult Tolerance. The Dealings with Dissidents and Dissenters in the History of Christianity’ (‘Schwierige Toleranz. Der Umgang mit Andersdenkenden und Andersgläubigen in der Christentumsgeschichte’, held from 6th to 8th May 2010 in Fribourg/Switzerland) devoted a whole section to this significant shift. The attitudes to the notion of human rights and human dignity in Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism are presented in the section of the resulting edited volume:


The catholic theologian Konrad Hilpert (LMU Munich) presents the lengthy process of the rejection of human rights in the catholic church preceding the encyclical ‘Pacem in terris’ of 1963. He points out that the positive evaluation of the belief in human rights was a direct reaction to the experiences of unjust states, totalitarianism and destruction in the first half of the 20th century. As Hilpert emphasizes, these experiences provoked a learning process (‘Lerngeschichte’) in the catholic theological elite making human rights the theological basis for the contemporary catholic church’s co-operation with secular political agencies. The aim was the implementation of a normative Christian understanding of humanity, society and politics.

As Vasilios N. Makrides (University of Erfurt) describes in his contribution the orthodox theology remained more reluctant to this development, even though a cautious acceptance of human rights as a constitutive rationale for ethical discourses eventually prevailed in the debates in the late 20th and early 21st century. Central for the difficulties of orthodoxy with human rights seems to be the problematic relationship of orthodoxy with Western modernity and its – by and large – liberal, democratic character.

At this point my own contribution deals with the protestant affirmations of human rights/human dignity, which remained also ambivalent after World War II. On the basis of the positions of the German theologian Ernst Wolf (1902-1974) and the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) I outline two important strands of protestant political thought in respect to human rights. Ernst Wolf fostered the approval of human rights through a ‘political theology’ of god-given human dignity, an idea, which is constituted in Article 1 of the German constitution (1949) as the foundation of an objective order of values. Nonetheless Wolf extensively used his theological notion of human dignity to criticize a too liberal form of democracy as he saw it expressed in other articles of the German constitution, thus keeping up an anti-western tradition which coined interbellum Germany’s protestant churches and the idea of the ‘prophetic custodianship of the church’ (Karl Barth) in postbellum theology. Reinhold Niebuhr, in contrast, looked at human rights and fundamental civil rights only indirectly in so far as they serve as instances of the democratic formation of opinion and will. Without using the terms ‘human rights’ or ‘human dignity’ at all, Niebuhr defended individual freedom as the creative center of his ‘Christian realism’. Niebuhr rejected the idea of the ‘prophetic custodianship of the church’ and developed a denominational ‘public theology’, which influenced the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. To put it bluntly: In modern Protestantism the theological affirmation of the terms ‘human rights/human dignity’ does not necessarily include an approval of western liberal democracies and their constitutional guarantee of human rights as fundamental civil rights on the one hand, while on the other hand their theological defense may neglect the terms. In contemporary protestant political ethics the options of Wolf and Niebuhr are still at work.

If you are interested in reading my essay you will find it in: Christopher Voigt-Goy, Zwischen Politischer Theologie und public theology – Menschenrechte bei Ernst Wolf und Reinhold Niebuhr, in: Mariano Delgado u.a. (Hg.), Schwierige Toleranz. Der Umgang mit Andersdenkenden und Andersgläubigen in der Christentumsgeschichte, Stuttgart 2012 (Studien zur christlichen Religions- und Kulturgeschichte 17), p. 263-277.




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voigtgoy (January 27, 2014). Human Rights and Modern Christianity – Historical Perspectives. Humanitarianism & Human Rights. Retrieved July 22, 2024 from

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