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Human rights and history

Larry Seidentop has written a book, “Inventing the Individual: the Origins of Western Liberalism”, where he argues that our tradition of individualism and human rights stems from Christianity.


... Human Rights
Photo by Jeremy Schultz –

Steve Latham


As an academic political philosopher, Seidentop is not naïve enough to believe that there is a simple correlation between the Bible and today’s political landscape.

Instead he traces a complex history of development, connecting the Scriptural deposit, through the vagaries of historical development, especially in the Middle Ages.

human-rights-3As theology progressed through this period, it was employed to defend the notion of an individual identity, properly immune from the impositions of government.

Britain’s Magna Carta, whose eight hundredth anniversary is celebrated this year, owes its provenance to this politico-theological heritage.

Of course, such arguments were initially deployed to support the freedom of nobles from interference by the Crown.

Nevertheless, the door was opened to the notion that the individual possessed inalienable rights; and the definition of who this included has been progressively widened ever since.

Seidentop hails from the western liberal tradition. Inevitably, for our historical conjuncture, this paradoxically makes him seem conservative, since he is defending a position which is under attack.

However, there are also figures on the political left, who also discern the roots of the western tradition in the Christian origins of our culture.

These include: German Marxist Frankfurt School thinker, Jurgen Habermas; French Maoist philosopher, Alain Baiou; and international intellectual superstar Slavoj Zizek.

Christian belief in sin leads to suspicion of untrammelled power within government, and the need for some kind of democratic oversight or accountability.

This is not in an unrealistic, over-idealistic- sense, but a realistic limitation of fallen human nature. As Winston Churchill said: democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

The belief in the value of the individual before God, and the need to respond freely to the Divine call also gave rise to the notion of rights and free speech, against the diktats of the state.

The belief in a defining ‘event’, in Christianity’s case Christ’s rHow violent 4esurrection lent motive power for people trying to change the world.

Transferred to a Leninist concept of the ‘revolution’ as the defining event, this idea later motivated movements for the transformation of whole societies.

Following this, the individual, in a community of like-minded people, the church, then derives a sense of personal agency, subjectivity; confidence that their actions matter and can effect change.

How violent  7It would be a mistake to conclude therefore that Christianity is true, simply because it inspired these developments, which we consider beneficial.

That would be the reverse of the genetic fallacy: that because we have identified the historical origins (genesis) of an idea it must be false.

However, there is a dilemma for these thinkers. They believe that there are objective reasons for adopting these values – on the basis of enlightenment, rationalistic, thought.

But can these values be retained without their original religious roots? Faced with another religious challenge, now from radical Islam, can secularism preserve its precious heritage?

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One Comment

  1. Manuel Serrano

    “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

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