I suspect very few Canadians understood the man they resoundingly rejected at the polls in 2011. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff failed to win even his own seat, despite being one of the most intelligent articulators of contemporary Canadian values. In response to his jet-setting academic career, opposing politicians branded him as peculiarly un-Canadian, and, as always, the political process ensured that no intelligent conversation could take place about the deeper convictions held by Ignatieff and our political system as a whole.

Ignatieff’s 2001 essay, “The Idolatry of Human Rights,” is important here. It presents both a compelling and conflicted description of the deep place human rights language has in our culture. The essay illustrates with great clarity the conflict of interests that a human rights morality creates for religious groups, and perhaps for Christians in particular. Human rights initiatives and advocacy have accomplished much unquestionable good in our world, but, at least in Ignatieff’s case, the core of human rights theory is hostile to traditional theological convictions.

Ignatieff argues that it is dangerous to found human rights on any metaphysical or theological foundation, because to do so mires human rights in particular cultural commitments:

Human Rights is morally universal because it says that all human beings need certain specific freedoms “from”: it does not go on to define what their freedom “to” should consist in. In this sense, it is a less prescriptive universalism than the world’s religions. (“The Idolatry of Human Rights,” p. 74)


For Ignatieff, to fill the empty space at the heart of the question of what it is to be a human is idolatry. That space must be vacated and protected by the only universally accepted values available: freedom from harm and abuse (p. 75). Whereas Ignatieff’s uncle, the Anglican political philosopher George Grant, understood the failure of modernity to be its inability to define the substance of fundamental notions like justice or goodness (see his book English Speaking Justice), Ignatieff understands this lack of definition to be a virtue.

In this sense, Ignatieff is openly pessimistic about human nature. Human rights cannot be motivated by high ideals of human dignity, or the basic goodness of people, because history has taught us that these things make little difference. Thus human rights is based upon fear, not hope (p. 80). There is no substantial difference between religious and secular definitions of the human person: “To the extent that history is a relevant witness, its testimony corroborates neither the believer nor the unbeliever” (p. 86).

It cannot be denied that human rights have provided an effective framework for action and for the protection of vulnerable people around the world. In that sense Ignatieff may be right that the universal appeal of human rights is greater than that of religion. That they could ever be void of content however, seems questionable. Ignatieff seeks a foundation for human rights, yet his formulation still serves as a powerful acid that dissolves traditional Christian faith (among others), not because of some religious love for oppression and hierarchy, but because Ignatieff’s brand of politics attempts to establish a more essential framework for understanding reality and what really matters. This version of human rights absorbs everything and fits other traditions into its mold.

Ignatieff’s vision is ultimately godless, in the literal sense of the word, because to be effective, to be universal, it must be. Though carrying a veneer of hospitality, and perhaps despite his best intentions, his metaphysics remains hostile to religious convictions. Religious people and their theological views are welcome if they behave, if they adjust, but not if they insist on the essential truth of their views.

Churches face difficult decisions on matters of human rights because some discussions of the topic, like Ignatieff’s, present an alternative moral worldview with which Christians have overlapping concerns. Discerning where these concerns overlap and differ has been difficult for churches because the human rights regime, like Christianity, can demand absolute commitment and adherence. Ignatieff even admits that a little reverence in the end may be helpful to compel and inspire the human rights vision he advocates. The paradox of representing a God who cannot be represented, Ignatieff suggests, may in the end prove instructive for human rights: “We may not be entitled to worship our species, but our commitment to protect it needs some sustaining by some faith in our species” (p. 87). It may be helpful, he says, but some idea of the sacred is far from necessary to sustain the idea of human rights which require little more than basic moral empathy and reciprocity (p. 88). Thus while he claims that human rights theory can be universal without destroying local cultures and religions, it is hard to imagine how anyone could miss the implications. The universal theological and moral claims of Christianity, in this case, are incapacitated by Ignatieff’s scheme, and become little more than the playthings of local cultures; they might prove useful if they make people happy but are dangerous should they become anything more.

Christians have to admit that our society’s eagerness to embrace this vision has been occasioned, at least in part, by the past failures of the churches and Christian society as a whole. Of course human rights have deep roots in the Christian tradition. The Catholic Catechism, for example, speaks of “rights that flow from his (man’s) dignity as a creature.” But it is precisely this creatureliness, or givenness of human nature, that the rights language of Ignatieff cannot accept. The secular version of human rights which Ignatieff claims to represent arose in the aftermath of two disastrous wars that darkly symbolized the moral emptiness of Western religious and political culture. Indigenous peoples in Canada, for example, in their own way are very much victims of this troubled history and have found the human rights framework to be an effective vehicle for advancing their concerns and discussing their historical wounds. Because mainline churches have justifiably been held accountable by human rights standards, they have hardly been in a position to articulate the differences. The fact that the same logic is used to defend indigenous rights and to defend abortion or doctor-assisted suicide has left mainline Christians in a confusing and helpless muddle. It is not at all surprising that questions of sexual identity and orientation, for example, are now driving a wedge between the traditional Christian commitments to honor and protect the individual and the fundamental conviction that human life has a God given, creaturely form.

Complaining about the limitations and restrictions that human-rights regimes now place upon traditional Christian believers will do us little good, though there is ample reason to complain. In many cases, we have little choice but to simply affirm human rights declarations and initiatives, and to the degree that these affirmations stem from our deeper scriptural convictions, we should do so with passion and humility. But we can do so, I believe, with a growing and patient knowledge that we are now living in a foreign land. We may be unable to topple the idols of this land, but we needn’t worship them. It would be foolish to think there is nothing at stake, and I am grateful to Ignatieff for bringing clarity to the building tension between human rights claims and Christian teaching, both outside and within our churches. Perhaps for Christians this is a time to learn anew what it really means to worship.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Dane Neufeld is the incumbent of St. James, Calgary.

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