When we reflect on the historical development of human rights, we see immediately that for most of human history religious leaders resisted what we today describe as fundamental human rights. Traditionally, religious leaders were primarily concerned with enforcing their authority and with the welfare of their community, rather than with the rights of their followers — especially if recognizing these rights meant permitting dissent. Religious people who today support human rights need to acknowledge humbly that their traditions and teachings have long been used to deny many contemporary civil and political rights and that, until recently, support for human rights has come more consistently from secular political and cultural movements than from religious constituencies.
This is less true for Protestants than for Catholics, as Protestants were quick to claim their right of conscience in opposition to the religious hierarchy from which they were dissenting. Nonetheless, it is common knowledge that Protestant reformers often suppressed dissent within their own jurisdictions. Religious freedom, as a fundamental right of all individuals, was not effectively institutionalized among Protestants in North America until Roger Williams established Rhode Island as an independent colony.
The Virginia Bill of Rights of 1776 laid the foundation for modern notions of civil and political rights, and in the United States the Bill of Rights in the Constitution guaranteed these rights for all those who were permitted to vote. In the latter part of the 18th century many of the individuals who embraced the idea of "natural rights" were members of churches, yet it would be misleading to say that religious organizations were active in lobbying for the protection of rights. The protection of civil and political rights was the result of a successful rebellion and the experience of freedom that inspired and sustained it.
America religious leaders were more prominent in the 19th century in promoting the rights of Black Americans, women, prisoners, and children. In the 20th century, Christian and Jewish leaders from the United States were among the first to urge that the United Nations promulgate a Declaration of Human Rights. The newly formed World Council of Churches provided leadership among Protestant Christian groups and, since Vatican II, members of the Roman Catholic Church have been in the forefront of the human rights struggle all over the world. Jewish participants in the human rights movement are far more numerous than their small numbers in the world would lead one to expect. More recently, a number of Muslim intellectuals have asserted that the Islamic tradition supports fundamental human rights.
Jews and Christians affirm that persons have human rights because they are created in the image of God. Contemporary Jews assert that Pesach (Passover), Succot (Tabernacles), and Shavuot (Pentecost), the three major festivals in the Jewish year commemorating aspects of the exodus from Egypt, provide support for the notion of political liberty. Purim (Lotteries), which recalls the danger to the Jewish people portrayed in the story of Esther, is said to affirm the rights of minority peoples. And in remembering those who were martyred for their faith on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), Jews today affirm the fundamental right of conscience.
Jewish scripture and law is also used by some Jews, however, to claim the land of Israel exclusively for the Jewish people and to deny the rights of Palestinians to live where their ancestors have made their homes for centuries. Whereas organizations such as Rabbis for Human Rights file lawsuits in Israeli courts in order to defend the human rights of Palestinians, fundamentalist groups such as Gush Emunim have supported terrorist attacks and attempted to blow up the Dome of the Rock, the sacred Islamic shrine located on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Among Christians there is considerable debate about whether human rights are adequately supported by the scriptures of the Old Testament or can only be affirmed on the basis of the saving event of Jesus Christ. Christian evangelicals have expressed concern, as have Muslims, that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not acknowledge God as the ultimate source of human rights and have accused Christian liberals of making Freedom their god, rather than Jesus Christ. Catholics have since Vatican II embraced human rights as the social conditions for human dignity, and many priests, nuns and lay leaders have been martyred in human rights struggles in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Divided by doctrine about human rights, Christians are united in supporting religious freedom. Evangelical Christians aggressively send missionaries to Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe and urge the United States government to impose economic sanctions on any foreign country that seeks to restrict the fundamental human right of freedom of religion or belief. In the United States, however, these same Christians may well support attempts to legislate Christian values and to require that the Christian belief called "creationism" is taught in public school biology classes as an alternative to evolution.
Muslims affirm that governments have a responsibility to enforce divine law. In Islam the people are not sovereign; God alone is sovereign. Human rights, therefore, are to be enforced only insofar as they reflect divine law. Resolutions of the United Nations are not recognized by Muslims as obligatory, but the rights sanctioned by God in scripture are seen as absolute. To be sure there is a significant overlap between the rights asserted through international law and the rights affirmed by Islamic jurisprudence. But where there is a difference, then Islamic law is to be obeyed.
Equality of rights regardless of race or national origin is a firm belief within Islam, and historically Muslims have often been better at putting this ideal into practice than Christians. If men and women are equal before God, however, they are clearly unequal before the judges of Islamic courts. Some Muslims argue that the ideals of Islam affirm gender equality, but governments that have sought to implement Islamic law have distinguished between the rights of men and women. Moreover, Islamic teaching justifies this distinction by arguing that men and women have rights commensurate with their different roles and responsibilities in society.
Religious support for human rights among Jews, Christians and Muslims tends to take the form of arguing that modern notions of rights are implicit in the duties that we have to God and our neighbors, which are revealed in the ancient scriptures of each community of faith. If I have, for instance, the duty to love you as my neighbor, then you have the right to expect and hold me to the standard of conduct that is consistent with my duty. Hindus, who do not generally believe in a Creator, derive rights from social, cultural and religious duties. Buddhists find rights implied in the obligation to be aware of the interconnectedness of all reality and thus affirm animal as well as human rights.
This is very different from the view of those who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and promoted the development of human rights law in the first part of the second half of the 20th century. From this other point of view, which is at the core of recent Western political thought, rights are inherent in the nature of the individuals who join together to form communities. Thus rights are brought into society by individuals who, in theory, form a "social contract" with one another in order to live together. In this perspective the community is like a voluntary association, which the individual can leave or join as he or she chooses.
When Asians or Africans practicing Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic or indigenous traditions assert their cultural rights today and complain that international human rights law is dominated by Western individualism, they are challenging the universality of the idea that communities are formed by individuals who enter into a social contract. In historical terms, of course, they are correct. Until very recently, all societies were formed more around kinship and ethnic identities, than by the voluntary decisions of their individual members. Prior to modern democratic forms of government, individuals had little to say about the laws that governed their societies. Any assertion of the universality of human rights, therefore, must be acknowledged as a contemporary claim that such rights are universally the necessary social conditions for human dignity.