Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Evangelicals and Human Rights

I have previously blogged on the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, the interfaith campaign to end all torture, including so-called “necessary” torture used in interrogations in the “war on terrorism,” and including techniques such as waterboarding.  This campaign, led by Princeton theologian George Hunsinger, is extremely important, and it gathers Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other persons of faith together, united against this barbarism.  I have been pleased that some evangelical Christians, such as Glen H. Stassen, David P. Gushee, Jim Wallis, and others, have been part of this campaign from the beginning.  But, knowing that many evangelicals hesitate to join any organization or campaign that links them with non-Christians or even non-evangelicals, I was worried that the majority of U.S. evangelicals would stand aloof from the work of NRCAT, giving tacit approval to the evil of torture.

Fortunately, David Gushee has now led in creating a new organization, Evangelicals for Human Rights, which has drafted its own Evangelical Declaration Against Torture: Protecting Human Rights in an Age of Terror.  The National Association of Evangelicals has signed onto the statement which not only declares torture immoral, but gives strong theological reasons for protecting human rights.  This development is huge since many U.S. evangelicals have been taught that all talk of “rights” are selfish and secular.  This declaration sets the record straight (and even cites one of my articles on the pre-Enlightenment history of human rights). If it catches on, it removes any semblance of legitimacy to torture and other human rights violations, even among that segment of the U.S. electorate which has formed the hardcore of Bush’s base–white evangelicals (African-American and Latino evangelicals have never been behind these policies, not even condoning them by silence).  Some of the same leaders who drafted the NRCAT statement, George Hunsinger, Glen Stassen, Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, etc. are found here with Evangelicals for Human Rights, but others, such as Asbury Seminary’s Christine Pohl, World Vision’s Roberta Hestenes, Cheryl Bridges Johns of the Church of God Theological Seminary, Yale’s Miroslav Volf and Nicholas Wolterstorff, are prominent in the drafting of this new statement.  Emerging Church guru, Brian McClaren, who seems to have coined the term “generous orthodoxy,” is one of the initial signers.

I have signed both the NRCAT and the EHR statements on torture and I urge you to do so, as well, and use the resources as teaching tools in your churches.  It was Richard Overton, General Baptist and leader of the Levellers, who first coined the term “human rights” and who enunciated the strong Christian basis for support–well before the the watered-down Enlightenment concept of human rights.  In my ‘teens (the 1970s), Christian support for and defense of universal human rights was almost a given.  I’m glad to see that such a heritage is being recovered, after being eroded during the last several decades, and abandoned wholesale after 9/11.

March 15, 2007 - Posted by | economic justice, human rights., torture


  1. “But, knowing that many evangelicals hesitate to join any organization or campaign that links them with non-Christians or even non-evangelicals, I was worried that the majority of U.S. evangelicals would stand aloof from the work of NRCAT, giving tacit approval to the evil of torture.”

    The key term here, Michael, is MANY–but certainly not all. It seems that there are also MANY evangelicals who have no difficulty allying themselves with non-Christians if it suits their political objectives. (In fact, I believe this was first encouraged by Francis Schaeffer in his doctrine of co-belligerence.) The close alliance between the Republican Party and the religious right is, perhaps, the most notorious example (though, admittedly, there is significant overlap here too). Likewise, right-wing personas such as Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, et al. seem to have a significant following amongst evangelicals as well. We’re also seeing a small number of evangelicals hinting at the fact that they might support Mitt Romney in the GOP primaries because he “shares their values” even though he is a Mormon, a religion that most, if not all, evangelicals would identify as a cult instead of a legitimate form of Christianity.

    But lest I ignore the board in my own eye, progressive evangelicals have basically embraced Schaeffer’s doctrine of co-belligerence as well (though, they probably wouldn’t refer to it as such) in that we often work with theological liberals, persons of other faiths, and even persons of no-faith at all when we share “common values.”

    The key here is to form alliances around issues where we truly do share common values and not to uncritically buy into and advocate everything that non-Christians would offer us. This, of course, is a mistake that has been made by believers on both ends of the political spectrum. (Hence, Jim Wallis reminds us that God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat.)

    But as for progressive evangelicals collaborating with non-evangelicals and even non-Christians in order to bring about an end to torture, global warming, and other manifestations of human sin and injustice, why not? Conservative evangelicals do the same exact thing when it comes to issues such as, say, abortion or stem-cell research. So for those of us evangelicals who feel led, theologically and morally, to address a broader range of issues, why not continue to collaborate with non-evangelicals in order to tackle those issues more effectively?

    Comment by haitianministries | March 15, 2007

  2. Daniel, you are raising the issue of “acceptable vs. unacceptable allies” which is a major critical variable in ethical decisions. Because of its importance, I will devote an entire blog post to it and reprint your remarks there.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 16, 2007

  3. Michael, That would be immensly helpful to review the criteria for determining which allies are “acceptable” and “unacceptable.” I’m looking forward to reading more.

    Comment by haitianministries | March 16, 2007

  4. A helpful post, Michael. This is indeed an encouraging development.

    Comment by Melissa Rogers | March 17, 2007

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