Do people have a basic human “right” to religious freedom? James Durham, a seventeenth-century Calvinist, did not think so. According to him, the tolerant consider error “no hurtful thing.” To be tolerant, he believed, is to “account little for the destruction of souls.”

He and other Christian forebears had no interest in universal religious freedom. They wanted to practice their own faith without undue interference. But on the question of religious liberty for others, they were quick to insist that “error has no rights.”

Our mood is different today. We cling to notions of pluralism and equality. But in the interest of toleration, has our society become preoccupied with individual rights? A number of contemporary social theorists—especially those who espouse a “communitarian” perspective—insist we have. There is a lot to be said for their point. According to the Bible, our purpose in life is not to do our own will but to serve and glorify God. An obsession with human “entitlements” does not sit well with that view.

Does that mean, then, that from a Christian point of view, talk of a right to religious freedom is off base? And was the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights wrongheaded when it affirmed that our “right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” is so basic that “[n]o one should be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”? Or do we, in fact, have a legitimate human right to religious freedom?

Putting God’S Rights First

The theologian Jürgen Moltmann has put the issue of human rights in its proper biblical context. In a 1976 position paper on the subject, he insists that we base our Christian understanding of human rights “on God’s ...

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