At the end of this bloodiest of centuries, humanity seems to have been given a second chance; the world seems to have entered a new “springtime of nations.” This new climate has much to do with the human-rights revolution that has swept the globe in recent years.

What do we mean when we talk of human rights? It obviously means different things to different people. To heroes of freedom like Lech Walesa and Václav Havel, the term meant respect for basic human decencies; it meant protection from coercive and tyrannical state power; it meant a “normal” society. And on behalf of that kind of “normality,” Walesa and Havel and others like them led a nonviolent revolution in 1989.

But in established democracies like our own, human rights has taken on an ever-more-elastic meaning. Some would have it that abortion on demand and legalized homosexual “marriage” are human rights. But that cannot be true.

What, then, does the phrase mean? And what does it have to do with religious freedom, which has been called the “first freedom”? If human rights are not to degenerate into a kind of rhetorical trump card, to be played on behalf of the counterculture when reasonable arguments fail, we must go back to the beginning and try to set the notion of human rights on a more solid foundation. Who is the author of human rights? Who is the bearer of rights? What is the relationship of rights to obligations?

We must begin by considering what freedom is—and is not. In the contemporary world, freedom has too frequently meant doing what we like—so long as nobody else gets hurt. But that is not the concept of freedom that grows out of Christian tradition. Nor was it the concept that animated our country’s founders. For them, freedom was not a matter of doing ...

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