Une Religion Sans Dieu: Droits De L’homme et Parole De Dieu, by Jean-Marc Berthoud.
“La Fronde.” L’Age d’Homme, 1993.
Reviewed by John Warwick Montgomery, Ph.D., D.Theo.
Occasionally, one comes across a book which, thankfully, is not written in or translated into English, thereby reducing the chances of misery for English readers. This is such a book.
The title translates as “A Godless Religion: Human Rights and God’s Word.” It appears in a series with the motto: “Mankind begins at the point where man says no.” Here the author, on the basis of what he conceives as biblical religion, says no to the modern human rights movement.
Berthoud’s argument, dependent heavily upon reactionary French neo-Thomist philosopher Michel Villey, American Calvinist presuppositionalists, and the Amsterdam philosophy of Dooyeweerd, argues that the God of the Bible insists on duties, not rights (sinful, fallen man can have no genuine rights); and that today’s human rights movement is the product of pagan deists at the time of the French Revolution and should be rejected by right-thinking Christians. The author seconds Villey who finds the earliest definition of “human rights” in atheist Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and identifies four consequences of human rights theory: individualistic anarchy, collectivistic totalitarianism, the economic triumph of bourgeois capitalism, and the political triumph of dictatorial socialism.
This argument will not be new to American evangelicals. The extreme right in the American church has always confused political rightism with theological conservatism, maintaining that the United States is “God’s country,” and that all international involvements (such as United Nations membership or the ratification of international human rights treaties) can only contaminate national purity. Among others, we have T. Robert Ingram writing a volume titled, What’s Wrong With Human Rights, and lawyer John W. Whitehead telling us that “from a biblical perspective, “‘rights’ as such do not exist” (The Second American Revolution).
Insofar as Berthoud’s argument depends on the Amsterdam philosophy, it easily falls under its own weight. Dooyeweerd’s weak view of Scripture and contributions to the dismal Reconstructionism of Rushdoony and Gary North have been thoroughly exposed (see, for example, John M. Frame and Leonard J. Coppes, The Amsterdam Philosophy: A Preliminary Critique). But what about Berthoud’s approach to human rights in general? Is it biblical and consistent with Christian belief?
Short answer: no (“mankind begins at the point where man says no”)! Human rights are not, pace Berthoud, rights that man allegedly has over against God, and only the naivest of pagans ever asserted such. From the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, the American Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, to today’s Universal Declaration and European Convention on Human Rights, human rights have been defined as rights over against other human beings: the right not to be boiled in oil by your neighbour. The point is that (as John Locke so well argued) since man is created by God in His image, man is given “certain inalienable rights”–rights that other people can never legitimately take away from him and which he cannot even remove from himself. The point of the modern human rights movement is to protect those rights–especially against totalitarian governments which want to reduce the citizen to a pawn on a political chessboard. (See Montgomery, Human Rights And Human Dignity, passim.)
Evangelicals have so often opposed anything and everything new–whatever doesn’t use our language or doesn’t arise from the evangelical revival movement. When radio came on the scene, fundamentalists opposed it as the medium of “the prince of the power of the air.” A generation later, Apologist Edward John Carnell had to write a book titled, Television: Servant or Master? to try to convince fellow evangelicals that television was legitimate theologically. When we act like this we only bring the eternal gospel of Christ into ridicule and disrepute.
This is particularly so in the case of human rights. Christians should be at the forefront of the human rights movements, not grousing and winging that God’s sovereignty is somehow diminished when efforts are made to protect the civil liberties of the persecuted. Recently, at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, I won three consolidated cases against the Greek government in behalf of Christians engaged in evangelism in Greece: they had received criminal convictions for “proselytism” under a Greek law aimed to maintain the status quo by jailing people who try to persuade others to change their religion. In such situations, international human rights law is our friend, not our enemy. When we make it our enemy, we do ourselves, and those to whom we witness, a terrible disservice. Ask Jay Sekulow of the American and European Centers for Law & Justice as to whether rights are important: don’t ask pundits in their ivory towers. (Cf. American Bar Association Journal, June, 1998, pp. 30-32.)
As many of you know, I am a thoroughgoing Francophile: I believe that the French language (and cuisine) will be normative during the Millennium. But Berthoud’s book is the last reason to learn the language. At least no work like this one has been written in Swahili.