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Development of civil liberties

Brief by Martha Quillen

Millennium – February 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

Europeans definitely did not invent the concept of civil liberties. They exist in different degrees and form in most cultures and tribal societies, and in actuality, Europeans owe much of their current persuasions to Christianity.

Christ was a common man, a carpenter, who stood fast against emperors. Moreover, he was critical of powerful religious authorities, as was clear in his admonitions against the Pharisees, a strict religious sect that had gained money and authority by teaching Jewish law. In addition, the Christian ideal of “Do unto others…” not only promoted a model for justice, it also tended to make people question what others were doing to them.

Thus, when the Roman Church spread the New Testament throughout Europe, and subsequently taught its clergy to read, it actually supplied the material and the means to inspire a movement against church dominance. Ironically, the first bid for freedom in Medieval Europe was aimed at the Church that had spread concepts of freedom and equality throughout Europe. And sadly, the Church in turn imposed an Inquisition on heretics.

From beginning to end, Western civilization’s struggle toward individual liberties has been enmeshed in dark paradox. Reformationists who had once been persecuted as heretics became Grand Inquisitors ferreting out supposed devil-worshipers. Protestant missionaries, the victors in a fight for religious freedom, went out to impose their religion on unwilling pagans. Americans, flush from a revolution, whooped about freedom, equality and justice for all while imposing scalp bounties on human beings.

The cultural development of individual rights in Europe and America are very new, however. Current American concepts of democracy, for example, did not develop until after the constitution was written, and have largely developed due to the extension of voting rights to persons hitherto not considered “equal.”

The Christian roots of western concepts of liberty and equality can clearly be seen in the writings of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, and in phrases such as “endowed by their creator.”

Likewise, the European philosophy of human rights owes much to encounters with natives in the New World. The entire discourse on liberty and equality in the Eighteenth Century was mixed with concepts of nature, and references to the common man, natural man, and the noble savage. Clearly, Europeans saw something natural and commendable in many of the societies they encountered in the new world. But that didn’t make the course of empire run smoothly.

Today, concepts of individual rights are still developing, and the ideals we embrace are by no means universally applied. Recently, concepts of rights have been extended to animals and even the earth itself, which may indicate what’s still to come. If our concepts of rights currently lack anything, it’s a universally accepted principal of obligation which clearly demarks at one point rights must be waived for the good of the society.

Such ideas, however, have been a primary topic in the growing environmental movement which forewords the notion that men mustn’t do anything to harm the environment we all share. With concepts of rights clearly jumbled with ideas of nature and what is natural, Colorado may well be an important player in the uncertain future of civil liberties.