Put that book on my reading list! Nicholas Wolterstorff "is the Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences," and his new book from Princeton University Press will probably make about as serious an argument you can get for the proposition that human rights must be grounded in "biblical theism." (Note to the "Christian America" crowd: It's from sources like this that you should turn to for serious arguments, not "Wallbuilders" or "Coral Ridge").
The Immanent Frame is doing a lot of blogging on the issue of late. I like James K.A. Smith's critique the best. A taste:
Wolterstorff is out to tell the causal version of this story: the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures teach inherent rights, the church affirmed inherent rights, the Reformation recovered and expanded inherent rights, and modern liberal democracy universalized inherent rights (and stands in danger of losing a ground for them if it persists in its secularizing ways). But with just a smidgen of a hermeneutics of suspicion, this story could be told quite differently—namely, that a late modern Calvinist, who has bought into a liberal model of justice as inherent rights, is now (surprise, surprise!) finding just such a model of justice in a selective, tilted reading of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures—and that insofar at the Reformation plays a role in giving rise to this paradigm, it’s to blame, not praise. (I don’t claim to have sufficiently marshaled the resources to actually pull off such an alternative account. I only want to sketch what it might look like.)
Wolterstorff cannot claim that "rights teachings" are explicit within the Bible's text, because they are not. Rather he claims (out of necessity) that they are "inherent." There is something to his point; the creation story, Imago Dei. However, inherent "rights" teachings is clearly a "selective" reading of the Bible. It is not, by necessity, the only proper "orthodox" reading of the good book. And it certainly was not that of Calvin or the early reformers. Samuel Rutherford, referring to Calvin's complicity in the death of Michael Servetus for simply speaking his unitarian conscience, aptly summarizes Calvin's teachings on the "rights of conscience," (the most unalienable or natural rights):
“It was justice, not cruelty, yea mercy to the Church of God, to take away the life of Servetus, who used such spirituall and diabolick cruelty to many thousand soules, whom he did pervert, and by his Booke, does yet lead into perdition.”
– Samuel Rutherfurd, “A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience.” (1649).
Note, I am sympathetic to the notion that human rights, by necessity, best rest on some kind of ultimate "higher power." I blogged about that at Ed Brayton's Dispatches From the Culture Wars, here and here. This leads to my second critique of Wolterstorff's thesis. His book seems to play into the modern culture war dynamic of "religious conservatives" arguing the Bible on the one hand v. the Godless secularists on the other. The actual account of our rights-oriented "Whig history" is more complicated to give the victory of "rights" to one side or the other. America's Founding Fathers grounded their idea of rights in a God -- an active personal God -- which might seem to give the victory to the "biblical" side. But their God was (or to some pretty damn important Founding Fathers was) a rationalistic Enlightenment God as much as He was biblical.
In a piece the Cato Institute reproduced, reacting to Mark Lilla's thesis (the subject of Cato Unbound that month), I noted the following on the rights granting God of the American Founding:
Nature’s God was theologically unitarian, universalist (did not eternally damn anyone) syncretist (most or all world religions worshipped Him), partially inspired the Christian Scriptures, and man’s reason was ultimate device for understanding Him. He was not quite the strict Deist God that some secular scholars have made Him out to be. But neither was He the Biblical God. Rather, somewhere in between.
Now, even if many of the Founding Fathers and the population at large didn't believe in this God, it's clear that Jefferson, Franklin, and J. Adams -- the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence -- did. Many other Founders probably did as well (see for instance my discussion of Madison below). And their benevolent unitarian deity is arguably the more authentic ultimate "rights-grantor." It's not as though they HAD to rely on the strict biblical God for their conception of "rights" because, as noted, the Bible's text does not explicitly speak of "natural rights." The "selective reading" of the Bible that seeks to glean universal human rights from the creation story fits perfectly with the benevolent unitarian deity of Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin described above.
And arguably their God, not the orthodox Calvinist God, is a more useful grantor of rights. There is, let us not forget, another selective reading of the Bible that denies universal human rights. From one of my above linked guest posts at Dispatches From the Culture Wars, I quoted Larry Arnhart who wrote:
The case of slavery and "universalism" illustrates the problem....[M]any religious traditions have allowed slavery, and the Bible never condemns slavery or calls for its abolition. On the contrary, in the American debate over slavery, Christian defenders of slavery were able to cite specific biblical passages in both the Old Testament and the New Testament supporting slavery. Opponents of slavery had to argue that general doctrines such as the creation of human beings in God's image implicitly denied the justice of slavery. But they could never cite any specific passage of the Bible for their position. Here's a clear case of where the moral teaching of the Bible depends on our coming to it with a prior moral understanding that we then read into the Bible.
Moreover, the "universalism" of the Bible is in doubt. I don't see a universal morality in the Old Testament. Moses ordering the slaughter of the innocent Mideanite women and children, for example, manifests a xenophobia that runs through much of the Old Testament.
Now, of course, the New Testament does seem more inclined to a universal humanitarianism. But the Book of Revelation teaches that at the end of history the saints will destroy the Antichrist and the unbelievers in bloody battle. The bloodiness of this vision has been dramatized throughout the history of Christianity. (See, for example, Tim LaHaye's popular LEFT BEHIND novels.)
In my intense study of orthodox biblical theology I often see orthodox theologians argue that only "born again," "saved" or "regenerate" Christians are "children of God." The others are "children of the devil," as it were. And they have biblical textual authority for this proposition. Though they do concede these "children of the devil" were made in God's image. A more liberal reading of the biblical record holds EVERYONE is God's child. And it's precisely that reading -- that we are ALL children of God, regardless of status as "orthodox" or "real" Christians -- upon which the American Founding relied. The more orthodox-Calvinist understanding that casts aside the unregenerate as "children of the devil," it seems to me, is rife for casting away most or all of their inherhent human dignity as well. Look at how Moses dealt with the Mideanite "women and children of the devil."
[See also Ron Paul's debate with John Lofton on homosexuals. Ron Paul's notion that homosexuals are children of God far better resonates with the political theology of the American Founding than Lofton's uber-Calvinist idea that homosexuals are children of the devil.]
And with that I will end with James Madison's liberal unitarian theology that invoked the Native American's "Great Spirit" God as the same one Jews and Christians worshipped and held unconverted Natives in their unconverted state were "Children of God":
“....The Great Spirit has given you, like your white brethren, good heads to contrive, and strong arms, and active bodies. Use them like your white brethren of the eighteen fires, and like them, your little sparks will grow into great fires. You will be well fed, dwell in good houses, and enjoy the happiness for which you, like them, were created. These are the words of your father to his red children. The Great Spirit who is the father of us all, approves them. Let them pass through the ear in to the heart. Carry them home to your people; and as long as you remember this visit to your father of the eighteen fires, remember these are his last and best words to you!” [Bold mine.]
So ultimately if we want more "theology" in public life to provide the necessary support for "human rights," we are just as likely to be left with modern liberal Christian notions of God that suit Barack Obama's ideal vision for society than Pat Robertson's. Is that what Nicholas Wolterstorff is trying to accomplish? Such are the inherent dangers when dealing with "civil religion."