The birth of the human rights movement was one of the great twentieth century revolutions, but the significant contribution of religious communities and ideas to this movement has been significantly underappreciated and poorly understood. This is especially the case with respect to evangelicals. American evangelicals were slow, particularly in comparison to Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Jews, to become vigorously engaged in international human rights issues. Yet as the New York Times recently noted (“Evangelicals Sway White House on Human Rights Issues Abroad,” 10/26/2003), the evangelical community has emerged as one of the most powerful voices within the human rights movement. This shift occurred rapidly over the past two decades. The first part of this chapter traces the emergence of an evangelical human rights movement, focusing on the issues (e.g. Sudan, religious freedom, sex trafficking, right to proselytize) and institutions (e.g. National Association of Evangelicals, Institute for Global Engagement, International Justice Mission) that have spurred this development. This section considers the causes behind this transformation in evangelical thinking about human rights and assesses the relationship between evangelicals and the broader human rights movement. The second part of this chapter considers the evangelical human rights movement from a theological perspective. In particular, it examines the manner in which the resources of evangelical theology have been marshaled to defend the concept of human rights. It considers both the strengths evangelical theology possesses for this task, as well as its limitations. Comparative reference to the Catholic tradition of thinking about human rights illumines this discussion, as these two traditions have engaged the liberal language of rights in distinctive ways. While Catholics possess the natural law tradition and the capacity to discourse with modern politics without excessive recourse to theological presuppositions, evangelicals have found it more difficult (or unacceptable) to circumscribe the biblical basis for their support of human rights. Finally, this discussion concludes with an examination of how the human rights revolution in evangelical thought might be situated within the broader tradition of evangelical political theology, including evangelical understandings of political authority, theological anthropology, and the relationship between the church and the secular state.
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