The indispensable role of Christianity in the creation of individual rights and ultimately of secularism itself is the subject of the revelatory new intellectual history Inventing the Individual by Larry Siedentop. Here’s hoping that President Obama gives it a quick skim before he next takes the podium at a prayer breakfast.
Siedentop begins his story with the ancients. The Greeks and Romans of pre-history weren’t secular; the family was, as Siedentop calls it, a religious cult run by the paterfamilias and suffused with ritual and assumptions of social inequality. We are all pro-family, but we can agree that ancestor worship takes it a little far.
At this time, Siedentop points out, the key distinction wasn’t between the public and private spheres, but between the public and domestic spheres, the latter characterized by the family with its rigidly defined hierarchical roles. There was no space for the individual with his or her own rights.