Rights and Religion

April 7, 2017
2017 Gomes Honoree David Little
2017 Gomes Honoree David Little

David Little, ThD ’63, should have ended up in the pulpit if his family tree is any indication.

His father was a fifth-generation Presbyterian minister. His brother, cousin, uncle and nephew all became clergy as well. Truth be told, Little intended to be a pastor himself and enrolled in the late 1950s at Union Seminary to prepare for bilingual, inner-city ministry to New York’s Hispanic community.

“My upbringing and family made a huge impression on me,” he says. “I graduated from the College of Wooster, a Presbyterian school, and then married Priscilla, a good Presbyterian woman. I fully intended to follow the well-worn family path.”      

It was not to be.

At Union, Little developed “a taste for academic study,” and embarked on what would be a 50-year career as a scholar and teacher of religion, social ethics, and human rights. For this work, from which two generations of colleagues, students, and policy makers have benefited, Little’s fellow HDS alumni will celebrate him this April as a 2017 Peter J. Gomes STB ’68 Memorial Honoree.  

“I am deeply moved to be chosen one of the bicentennial year recipients of the Peter J. Gomes Memorial Honors,” he says. “Peter Gomes was a good friend and esteemed colleague. Priscilla and I both profited from his preaching and sorely mourned his death. My experience 50 years ago as a doctoral candidate at Harvard Divinity School was formative both intellectually and spiritually. My years as a teacher at HDS were a high point in my career.” 

The descendant of a family that arrived in New England in the seventeenth century, Little spent the early years of his life in the Midwest before moving to the Philippines, where his father directed the Presbyterian mission. He returned to the United States for college and then entered Union Seminary.

A student of the legendary theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Little found himself swept up in the mid-century reconsideration of the Protestant Reformation, even as he ministered to a congregation of Cubans and Puerto Ricans in a bilingual church.

“That was in the late 1950s when the Neo-Orthodox movement was in full swing,” he explains. “I was moved to understand better the social impact of religion in part because of the spirit of the time when figures like Niebuhr were dusting off antique theological ideas and deploying them to illuminate political life and social problems in new and exciting ways. I was also inspired by the nature of Calvinism itself, which was connected to the political, legal, social, and economic conditions of its time.”   

Stepping away from the ordination path temporarily—or so he thought—Little came to Cambridge with his wife so that he could pursue a master’s degree in the social impact of religion at HDS. The Harvard faculty at the time was awash in scholars who would go on to define this area of inquiry: Paul Lehmann and James Luther Adams at HDS; Talcott Parsons, Robert Bellah, Perry Miller, and David Landes at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences; and Harold Berman at Harvard Law School. All were engaged in the study of the social significance of religion in a way directly pertinent to Little’s background and burgeoning perspective. 

“Serendipitously, the scholarly setting at Harvard at the time—both in the Divinity School and the University—was remarkably propitious for a person with my interests,” Little says. “The constellation of academic stars was perfectly aligned in my favor.”

James Luther Adams was one member of the HDS faculty who had a strong influence on Little. Adams’s interest in the work of the German sociologist Max Weber, in Anglo-American Puritanism, and in the relation of religion and law inspired Little to explore the idea of natural rights. He found that, rather than being exclusively the product of Enlightenment atheism, the concept was promulgated by Calvinists who believed that there were “universal and elemental moral requirements” that all human beings were obligated to respect.

“Explicating his belief in the inherent ‘rights of each individual' regarding matters of religion and conscience as well as property, political participation, and civil resistance," Little wrote in 1998, "Calvin's English followers began explicitly using the language of ‘natural rights.’ These rights were understood to apply equally to each and every human being… The rights were ‘natural' in the sense that they were neither earned nor achieved, nor did they depend on any particular religious belief or affiliation." 

Little came to see human rights as a “modern elaboration” of this notion, and put it at the center of a career that took him from Harvard to Yale, then the University of Virginia and back to HDS. His reputation as an expert in the comparative study of religious ethics and in human rights and public policy also earned him “side trips” to Brown, Amherst, Haverford, and the University of Colorado.

In 1989, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) invited Little to develop a program on religion, tolerance, and human rights.

“Our group studied and reported on the relation of violations of human rights to tolerance, nondiscrimination, protection of minorities, and protection against hate speech,” he says. “We looked at how developing policies of religious and ethnic tolerance in countries like Sudan, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, and Tibet might help combat the violent tendencies of religious nationalism and extremism.”

As a member of the State Department Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad, Little also assisted the U.S. Secretary of State in dealing with religious and ethnic conflict. One of the fruits of this work was the International Religious Freedom Act, adopted by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1998.

Impressed by Little’s work at USIP, HDS invited him in 1999 to return as the new Dunphy Professor of Religion, Ethnicity, and International Conflict. He enthusiastically agreed and found a school much changed from the one he’d known as a doctoral student in the 1960s. The faculty now included many experts in non-Christian religions. Students came from all over the world and included more women and non-white students. Even the worship services were more diverse. 

“I must say I found the presence in my classes of significant numbers of non-Protestants from various parts of the world, including Muslim and Asian students, wonderfully enriching,” says Little. “The same was true with respect to the broad diversity of faculty. All this was clearly a ‘gain.’”

During his decade at HDS, Little added courses on religion and peace, religion and nationalism, and religion and human rights to the School’s curriculum. He collaborated with some of the University’s most renowned scholars—including Samuel Huntington, Jessica Stern, and Michael Ignatieff—to offer advanced courses in religion and government at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Early on in his tenure, Little also was appointed director of the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life, a position he used to convene important conversations on religion and its impact on a range of contemporary challenges.

"We convened quite successful conferences on religion and ethnic tension, on Bosnia, and on Israel," he says. "I drew upon my associations at USIP for speakers. We sponsored another standing-room-only conference on Samuel Huntington's book, Who Are We: The Challenges to America’s National Identity, at which David Carrasco and I responded from different perspectives—both rather critically—to Huntington’s views.”

Now at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, Little continues his work on religious freedom and has collaborated on a series of sourcebooks on the topic within the traditions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism. Still a man on the move, Little is in the running for an appointment as a visiting scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University, where he would help develop curricula and research “in the general area of religion, human rights, and peace.”

Whatever comes next, Little says he will look back on his decade at HDS as one of the most enriching of his career.

“My 10 years at HDS were enormously rewarding, and overall the most gratifying of all my years of teaching,” he says. “I profited greatly from the opportunities to teach both at HDS and outside it. In particular, I was enormously blessed by the doctoral students I was associated with.They were a remarkably intelligent, inquisitive, industrious, productive group. I have treasured my connections with them ever since.”

—by Paul Massari