Human Rights Claims and the Orthodox in America
A. G. Roeber

The following is an adapted excerpt from A.G. Roeber’s new book, “Orthodox Christians and the Rights Revolution in America.” With permission from Fordham University Press, 2024.

As a reader who has come this far now will recognize, answering Witte’s and Alexander’s query about how the Orthodox navigate the “regime of human rights” depends upon whose history of various rights claims one chooses to follow. It is also the case that understandings of the meaning of “human rights” have changed significantly from the 1940s when the Orthodox did engage with those discussions and definitions. The examples in the preceding chapters show that elastic and increasingly broad claims have come to be made under the rubric of human rights for rights that were historically understood as political, legal, or civil rights.  It is also the case that optimistic and pessimistic narratives now characterize how Christian observers understand the history of rights. What do people mean when they invoke the words “human rights”?

Several key questions continue to divide scholars who have attempted to answer that question from their respective perspectives as theologians, philosophers, historians, social scientists, or legal experts.  For some time now, legal scholars and philosophers have been troubled by questions that emanate from disagreements over whether political, legal, and moral rights can or should be subsumed under the “human rights” rubric. In the American context, for example, the language that surrounds the extension of “the right to marry” has been cast not only in legal terms, but also with appeals to what some have identified as “moral-rights talk” that has become identified with “human rights.”

Orthodox Christians and the Rights Revolution in America (Fordham University Press, 2024).

Beyond this first question, an equally difficult one has arisen because some insist that an “orthodox” definition of “human rights” exists and these are rights that all humans possess “simply in virtue of their humanity.” Some then go on to argue that we should distinguish those rights from the “political” version of human rights. And yet others argue that this “orthodox meaning is mistaken” because even if some rights are legal, and in other cases, rights are moral, what has happened over time is that “for better or worse, the language of rights—especially the language of human rights—is now a common feature of moral discourse throughout the world, and is likely to remain so.” But as Michael Perry has argued, “not every right internationally recognized as a human right—is a legal right in every country [and] some have insisted … that ‘moral’ rights are not really rights, that the only genuine rights are legal rights, that so-called ‘moral’ rights are phony . . . rights.”

To extend this example, legal scholars and philosophers have argued that barring LGBT persons from marriage might “disadvantage” these individuals but such a policy would not automatically constitute a violation of “the right to moral equality.” That violation would occur only if laws enforced by the government result in an abrogation “of the right to religious and moral freedom.” In his more recent reflections, Perry has continued to demand that attention be paid to the question of whether it is critical to find a “grounding” or  “foundation” for human rights since many secular scholars dismiss this as a hopeless quest, because there is no consensus about whether there is such a thing as “human nature.” Beyond this first question, an equally difficult one has arisen because some insist that an “orthodox” definition of “human rights” exists and these are rights that all humans possess “simply in virtue of their humanity.”

Perry’s perspective is especially useful since he is one of the most eminent American legal and constitutional scholars to address the disagreements among scholars from various disciplines about what is meant by “human rights.” But he is also important because some of his argument receives endorsement from the American philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff who writes from the perspective of the Reformed Christian tradition. Wolterstorff, however, is much more insistent that no secular argument can convincingly “ground” human rights and provide a defense for either legal or moral rights. That defense emerged from the biblical witness of ancient Israel, and subsequently, Christianity. Wolterstorff is also of special interest because his work a decade ago attracted the attention and commentary from one of the few Orthodox scholars in North America who has written about human rights, Aristotle Papanikolau.

The engagement of the Orthodox with contemporary controversies over rights in America’s pluralistic society has produced different responses from the theologians Vigen Guroian and Aristotle Papanikolaou. Still, except for a recent exchange that illustrated some of the disagreements and tensions among the Orthodox regarding the issue of human rights and their relationship to political theology articulated by Papanikolaou, the Orthodox have not engaged the question of human rights in the American context. Guroian, in particular, has expressed grave reservations about the entire project of developing a political theology from Orthodox theological convictions.

Guroian and Papanikolaou share the conviction that the Orthodox will remain a prophetic minority voice within a pluralist American democracy.

They differ insofar as Papanikolaou argues for a political space that the Orthodox can positively endorse that would imply—for example—not advocating for laws against pre-marital sex or same-sex marriage.

The Orthodox must vocalize this if they are simultaneously to remain true to their historically grounded proclamation of who God is and what human dignity consists of, and to their obligation of inviting—not coercing–those beyond the bounds of Orthodoxy to share in that vision. For Guroian, this posture implies more than the rejection of same-sex marriage. It demands articulation of why the Orthodox position is of value and why secular rights claims are based on false assumptions about what it means to be human. Papanikolaou argues that the Orthodox belief in the importance of ascetic suffering as the road to union with God implies encountering the radically “other”—including gay, lesbian, and transgendered persons and communities—and affirming the human dignity and human rights of each individual through endorsing the constitutional-legal right to same sex marriage. Aristotle Papanikolaou’s participation in the Emory University Law School’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion resulted in the 2012 publication that lamented that “the Orthodox voice in matters of law and politics is severely underdeveloped.”

But does a universally shared understating of personhood exist in 21st century Eastern Orthodox Christianity and if so, how does this translate into a discussion of rights? Nicolas Prevelakis has argued that until recently Eastern Christians rarely took up the challenge of explaining how notions of personhood have informed “the kind of political arrangements that they thought were consistent with it.” None of the notions of personhood explored in Prevelakis’ essay address the specifics of how human rights and an Orthodox response to them appear in the context of American legal, constitutional and ecclesiastical issues. Prevelakis noted Aristotle Papanikolaou’s work concluding that Papanikolaou insisted that the Orthodox can only endorse a “human rights regime” if claims for human rights are grounded theistically, and if notions of the “individual” are modified to accommodate an Orthodox understanding of persons in communion and not “a framework within which humans appear as separated entities who related to each other legally.” The disagreements among Orthodox systematic theologians about “personhood” however, suggest that if a prior consensus must emerge here first, a political and legal-constitutional framework that all Orthodox can endorse in talking about human rights lies somewhere in the future.

If the Orthodox are to respond to the query regarding how they navigate the “regime of human rights” the history of engagement so far demands a greater consensus within the Eastern Orthodox community itself before an answer can be hazarded. First, given the importance the Orthodox place on the term “personhood” and the attendant theological anthropology, more clarity and consensus about what this term means must be evident both within the Orthodox Church and in its offering an Orthodox understanding to non-Orthodox, theists and non-theists alike. Second, the Eastern Orthodox will have to make clear to potential critics whether they are willing to endorse freedom of expression, especially in matters of religious choice and identity to avoid the historic temptation to use a connection to state authority to compel submission to social, political, and moral teachings the Orthodox confess. Third, the Orthodox have yet to demonstrate that they have left behind them the temptation to tribalism and the inclination to favor their own rights over those of “the other” however defined.

The history of Orthodox engagement with questions surrounding the term human rights reveals both the Orthodox potential for resolving these questions, but that same history forces the conclusion that the Orthodox must be confident among themselves about how to answer such queries; in each case the pursuit of that confidence remains a work in progress. ♦

Rev. Dr. A. G. Roeber is Emeritus Professor of Early Modern History and Religious Studies, Penn State University; Professor of Church History, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, Senior Luce Fellow, Orthodox Christian Studies Center, Fordham University and author of Orthodox Christians and the Rights Revolution in America (Fordham U. Press, 2024).

Recommended Citation

Roeber, A. G. “Human Rights Claims and the Orthodox in America.” Canopy Forum, March 07, 2024.