Biblical Heritage Leads to Freedom, Religious Toleration & Human Rights

The new atheist crusaders (such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins) like to pretend that the concept of universal human rights just popped out of thin air in the 17th and 18th century, the creation of the agnostic and atheist thinkers of the French Enlightenment.

But the truth is precisely the opposite: The recognition of universal human rights is one of the preeminent legacies of the Bible and the two religions, Judaism and Christianity, centered around it.

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We forget that the great English political philosopher John Locke – widely credited with working out the first systematic theory of natural (human) rights in modern times – based most of his arguments on Biblical precedents.

In his First Treatise on Civil Government, which is more Biblical exegesis than philosophy, Locke argued that human rights are not privileges dispensed or withdrawn at the discretion of the State. Rather, they are gifts from God which no prince or potentate, no state or sovereign, may take away.

Thomas Jefferson relied primarily upon Locke’s insights, and not those of French Enlightenment thinkers, when penning the Declaration of Independence — which, for the first time, proposed founding a state upon this fundamental, God-given, Biblically-based idea: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…”

There is also some empirical evidence that respect for human rights grew out of the Biblical heritage when comparing the “freedom” rankings produced by the international democracy watchdog organization Freedom House – co-founded in 1941 by Eleanor Roosevelt — with the percentage of the population in each country ranked as Christian by the CIA. (The CIA designation refers more to “nominal” rather than “practicing” Christians but nevertheless is illuminating when it comes to the cultural context that produces civil liberties.)

Each year, Freedom House publishes its annual survey which attempts to measure the degree of democracy and freedom in every nation of the world, producing “scores” that represent the levels of political rights and civil liberties in each state and territory – from 1 (most free) to 7 (least free). Out of 194 countries and territories surveyed for 2006, 73 countries (38 percent) were rated Free, 54 (28 percent) were rated Partly Free, and 67 (34 percent) were rated Not Free. (This is a marked improvement over 1980 when only 23.9% of nations were rated Free… 24.8% were rated Partly Free… and 51.3% were Not Free.)

Among the countries ranked as the most free (1) and with the highest respect for civil liberties (1) are Australia (66% Christian), Austria (78.3%), the United States (79%), Canada (66%), Costa Rica (92%), Belgium (100%), Chile (100%), Denmark (98%), France (90%), Finland (86%), Germany (68%), Great Britain (71.6%), Ireland (93%), Iceland (93%), Norway (90.1%), Portugal (98%), Spain (94%), Switzerland (78.9%), Sweden (87%), Italy (90%) and New Zealand (79.5%).

These are not fixed absolutes, of course. There are exceptions.

Haiti, for example, is listed as 96% Christian by the CIA yet has among the very worst record for human rights and political freedoms. The same is true of Rwanda: Rated 93.6% Christian by the CIA, it scores a 6 out of 7 for political freedom and a 5 for civil liberties. Some Latin American countries, just emerging from years of civil war or military dictatorship, have higher Christian populations but somewhat restricted freedom. For example, El Salvador, which is 83% Roman Catholic, is rated “free” but only scores a 3 for civil liberties. Mexico, which is 95% Christian despite its historically anti-Christian government, is rated 2 for political freedom and civil liberties.

But at the opposite end of the spectrum, those countries with the smallest percentage of Christians are rated overwhelming “not free” by Freedom House and are among those with the worst ratings for civil liberties by far – but again, with a few interesting exceptions. Almost all of the Islamic countries have very small Christian populations and rank near the bottom when it comes to political freedom and civil rights – including Saudi Arabia (0% Christian and no political freedom), Sudan (5% Christian and no political freedom), Libya (3% Christian and no political freedom), Iran (1% Christian and no political freedom), and so on.

Current Communist regimes, such as China (4% Christian), Cambodia (0%), North Korea (0%), Laos (1.5%) and Vietnam (7.2%), also have very low Christian populations and virtually no freedom whatsoever.

Interestingly enough, although some of the former Communist states are still ranked as “not free” or “partly free,” including Russia (only 15% Christian) and Albania (30%); a number of former Communist countries with sizable Christian populations are now ranked near the top in terms of civil liberties and political liberty. Once these countries were freed of Soviet military domination, they quickly adopted laws protecting political liberty and basic human rights. These include Bulgaria (83.8% Christian), which scores in the top rank for political freedom and a 2 for civil liberties; Poland (91.2% Christian), which now scores 1 for both civil liberties and political freedom; Hungary (74% Christian), which now scores 1s as well; and Lithuania (85%), which now scores 1s; Romania (99%), which scores 2s;

There are also some countries that are neither Christian nor communist but which nevertheless score badly in terms of civil rights and political freedom, including Bhutan (0% Christian), rated 6 for civil liberties and 5 for political freedom; Nepal (0.2% Christian), rated 6 for political freedom and 5 for civil liberties; the Maldives (0% Christian), rated 6 for political freedom and 5 for civil liberties; Guinea (8%), rated 6 for political freedom and 5 for civil liberties; and Malaysia (7%), which scores 4s.

Finally, there are a handful of countries with extremely low Christian populations but which nevertheless score high in terms of political freedom and civil liberties. These are Israel (2%), which scores 1 for both political freedom and civil liberties; Japan (0.7%), which also scores 1s; Taiwan (4%), which scores 1s; South Korea (26%), which scores 1s; and India (2.3%), which scores 2s.

Clearly, therefore, a sizable Christian population is not a requirement for civil liberty and political freedom, but you could still make the case that those non-Christian societies that have a solid record on human rights and political liberty benefited from prolonged contact with, and influence by, Christian nations.

Israel is a special case because respect for fundamental human rights and political freedom is a preeminently Jewish cultural legacy, one that is implicit in the Torah and which Israel bequeathed to Christianity. Japan, of course, had its western-style democratic government more or less imposed upon it by U.S. Occupation Forces following its defeat in the Second World War – but what was imposed by force has now taken root and grown into a distinctly Japanese style of liberal democracy. India, which was a colony of Great Britain’s for more than 175 years, and which today still prides itself on its membership in the Commonwealth and its record as preeminent cricket champions, is today a federal republic with a president, prime minister, a bicameral Parliament and a legal system based on English common law. While only 2.3% Christian, India has adopted many of the cultural values of liberal democracy and retains, like other members of the Commonwealth, remarkably strong ties to Britain.

In conclusion, therefore, we can say that the enemies of Christianity, Judaism and the Bible have it exactly backwards: Far from being a threat to liberal democracy and political freedom, the biblical heritage is, in fact, the intellectual matrix out of which both arose.

The values and beliefs that permeate the Bible — the notion that all human beings are equal in the eyes of God and that no king or ruler may claim unquestioned obedience — were the proximate cause for the development of a religious theory of liberty and the recognition of universal human rights. It is certainly not true, as atheist crusaders claim and as the freedom rankings from Freedom House refute, that commitment to Biblical religion results in intolerance and oppression. In fact, with a few exceptions, the countries on earth that practice freedom of religion and social tolerance are those with large Christian or Jewish populations.

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Robert J. Hutchinson is an author and essayist. His most recent book is Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth (Thomas Nelson, 2015).