Does Human Rights Need God? / Edition 1

Does Human Rights Need God? / Edition 1

by Elizabeth M. Bucar
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Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing


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Does Human Rights Need God? / Edition 1

The underlying presumption is that human rights are firmly enough established now—in discourse if not in practice—that the question of why they are important can be asked with some assurance that the myriad of different answers will not scuttle the whole effort. Contributors in religion, philosophy, law, and human rights advocacy look at religious appraisals, secular responses, and regional experiences. The anthology began as a 2002-03 lecture series at the University of Chicago, though not all 12 essays here were presented there. There is no index. Annotation ©2005 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR

Product Details

ISBN-13: 2900802829053
Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
Publication date: 02/12/2009
Series: The Eerdmans Religion, Ethics, and Public Life Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 408
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)

About the Author

Barbra Barnett is a doctoral candidate in ethics at theUniversity of Chicago Divinity School and has served asresearch associate for the Pew Forum on Religion and PublicLife.

Elizabeth M. Bucar is assistant professor of religion at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She has served as a research associate with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

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William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-2905-8

Chapter One

Why Human Rights Needs God: A Christian Perspective


More than a quarter century ago, I was invited by my church to participate in ecumenical discussions and to serve as a visiting lecturer in the theological academies of sister churches in the German Democratic Republic and in South India. I became fascinated with the way in which different ideational and social traditions treated human rights, including the interpretations of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 (the "Universal Declaration") and its subsequent covenants. Resistance to "Western" definitions of human rights was intense in the Marxist parties of Eastern Europe and, it turned out, both in the leadership of the Congress Party under Indira Gandhi in India, when she declared her "emergency" in 1976, and in the then emerging Hindu Nationalist parties. On the basis of these extended exposures to non-Western interpretations of human rights, I engaged in a comparative study of the roots and conceptual framework that made modern human rights discourse possible. The invitation to contribute to this volume is a welcome opportunity to rethink the issues in view of new conditions.

There are many things that I might say in response to the organizing question of this volume, "Does human rights need God?" But because space is brief, I am going to focus on two matters, perhaps best understood as providing a response to what I perceive as two challenges to the grounding of human rights norms: secularist ideology and religious pluralism. First, I will address the claim, often advanced from within the human rights community, that human rights do not have and do not require any religious grounding. Diverse versions of "the standard secularist account" find adequate grounding in secular conceptions of human dignity. In contrast to this view I will argue that the foundations of human rights claims are essentially theological. Second, the reality of ethical pluralism caused by the variety of religions has raised the question as to whether human rights are in any sense universal. I will offer a Christian perspective on the sources of human rights in order to show how human rights ideas formulated historically by the Christian biblically based tradition can recognize, learn from, and selectively embrace philosophical and legal insights from other cultures.

Secularist Views: The Intellectual Crisis of a Good Idea

"The standard secularist account" is found among lawyers, political scientists, economists, philosophers, and others whom we meet often in academia and public policy positions. Some turn to it because religion is marginal to their lives. They cannot imagine how it really means much to anyone else or to society at large; others segregate their historical and social thought from their faith, even if they are personally religious. Whatever its roots, it is, I believe, a deficient view, finally incapable of either defining the full scope or limiting the misuses of human rights arguments.

The uses of the terms "religion" and "theology" that appear in this secular account are prejudiced and confused. The word "religion" is not always clearly distinguished from particular religions, and the operative parts of the conflated definition are often self-contradictory. Secular thinkers tend to presume either that religion is a private sentiment which everyone should be allowed to have in his or her own way (in which case it can hardly serve to ground any public and political moral program) or that it is the ideological expression of group identity - a view that did not originate with Ludwig Feuerbach's notion of projection, or contemporary social location theory, but which is today indebted to them. Understood in this second way, religion is, to be sure, a social and political force, but a constructed one - used to legitimate egoism, war, misogyny, colonial exploitation, and violence.

I have no doubt that religion involves personal sentiments and provides the inner structure of personal moral character or that it also has a communal component that makes it a potent social force intimately tied to other social forces. But it follows from neither of these facts that religion is either irrelevant to the pursuit of justice or that religion is the source of the many social evils of the world.

What evidence can we give that religion has done more damage to human well-being than the legal advisors to kings who threw religious saints and martyrs into dungeons, the judges who tried witches against the advice of the clergy, the lawyers who wrote the slave laws, the jurists who drafted the justifications for the division of the world among the colonial powers, or the legal bureaucracies that enforced Hitler's or Papa Doc's or Stalin's or Mao's edicts?

I do not wish to portray religion as pure and innocent nor the powers of the world - such as law, economics, politics, or culture - as evil or sinful. I view them as equally sinful and as equally redeemable. Heaven knows that various religions have shown complicity in evil and that some are inclined to foment or legitimate particular evils because of the way they are internally constituted. But gross evil is present in many areas of life when this or that religion is not present, and it takes a more subtle analysis than we usually get from the accusers of religion under the standard secularist account to discern the degree to which religion mitigates or augments particular evils. George H. Williams was surely right when he said (often in lectures at Havard), "Religion is high voltage; it can energize much or electrocute many." For this reason, religion is the human acknowledgment that we live under a power and morality that we did not construct and may not ignore, and particular religions are sets of ultimate convictions and hypotheses about the nature, character, demands, and implications of that reality. They may be judged by reference to that reality, but otherwise must be treated with greater care and nuance than the accusers show.

"Religion in general" probably had no more to do with the origin and development of human rights ideas than "law in general" generated pluralistic constitutional democracy. That, however, is not at all the same as saying that specific religious convictions about how humans are constituted in the image of God - "endowed" with dignity (as the Universal Declaration says, although it does not say who did the endowing) - and about how God wants us to live, convictions argued in public theological debates about the relation of faith to truth and justice, have had nothing to do with human rights or democracy.

People, of course, use the term "theology" differently. Some use it as a confessional shell to wrap around a religion to make it unassailable to criticism, an intellectual trump to play when precious convictions are challenged. This license to be dogmatic in the less savory sense of the term is the meaning of "theology" most often accepted by the standard secularist account. It assumes that no theological claim or argument of ethic could be universally true without imperialism, for it holds that all theology is irrational and group particular; it denies the fact that every religion can be, and often is, assessed by norms of justice as well as truth and faith in theological terms. These assumptions are not completely unwarranted; some theologians do use theology this way to resist human rights.

Another, deeper view of theology, however, sees it as precisely the proper discipline to evaluate various religious, ethical, and quasi-religious claims to determine whether they are in accord with what humans can reasonably know about God, God's justice, and God's relationship to the world. On these grounds, some religions or aspects of religions, some ethical principles or purposes borne by them, and some morally laden quasi-religious claims (such as some human rights ideologies) can be judged as false or trivial while others can be judged as having greater validity or importance. It is at this point that reason converges with some religious orientations to form theology in such a way that it can judge bad faith from within and provide the moral architecture of civilization without. Theology, thus understood, issues in jurisprudence and the upbuilding of those key institutions of civil society, especially communities of faith, that in turn generated the complex societies that the secularist sees as the sociological source and grounding of human rights. That the jurisprudence and the society at large do not acknowledge these sources (and, indeed, may actually deny them) does not alter what is actually the case.

No known civilization has ever endured that was not rooted in some such beliefs about ultimate reality and what it requires of us, although some cultures are stronger and some are weaker in their capacity to join faith with reason, become self-critical, and shape changing civilizations. They then feed, and feed on, other religions, and prompt revision and reform in them, even if they do not convert everyone. After all, religions do not exist as self-contained complete monads. They are dynamic and seldom static, even if they share certain basic characteristics that allow us to use the word "religion" to point to quite different phenomena. Besides, they constantly interact with and respond to one another as well as to various philosophies and cultures. That is why human rights are discovered as latently or potentially present in other religions also.

A specific investigation into how the Christian tradition has contributed to human rights will be addressed in section two. But as for religion in general, the evidence for its linkage to human rights has been clear for some time, at least since the work of Georg Jellinek, the great Jewish legal historian and friend of the "quasi-Unitarian" Max Weber, the Lutheran Ernst Troeltsch, and the Calvinist Abram Kuyper - all of whom approved the embrace of rights theory by Pope Leo XIII from the 1890s on. Jellinek showed that a theologically refined religious faith, not the repudiation of it, best accounted for the rights established in modern constitutions. Such a faith, publicly articulated, is what had allowed the founders of the United States to declare, quoting a line from one of Locke's most Puritan writings, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." It is not hard to show that these theological traditions are the ones to which the authors of the Universal Declaration turned after the terrors of Nazi paganism and in the face of Communist secularism. I do not deny that it has taken more than two centuries for the "all" to revise the operative definition of "men" as including only white, propertied males, but I deny that it was Kant's immaculate conception of human dignity that served as the root of human rights ideas, as a number of secularist advocates of human rights have claimed. He was not in that way Immanuel.

In fresh research, the British scholar-pastor Canon John Nurser has documented in extended detail the ways in which, from 1939 until 1947, leading ecumenical Protestant figures worked with key figures not only in developing the Bretton Woods agreements, anticipating a postwar need for economic stability and development, but also in forming the Commission for a Just and Durable Peace, the Churches' Commission on International Affairs, and later the Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, all under the auspices of the Federal Council of Churches, with close connections to the emerging World Council of Churches and the International Missionary Conference. These organizations, notably led by Lutheran O. Frederick Nolde, Congregationalist Richard Fagley, Baptist M. Searle Bates, and Presbyterian John A. Mackay, among others, were dedicated to shaping what they then called a "new world order" that would honor human rights. They worked closely with Jacob Blaustein and Joseph Proskauer of the American Jewish Committee and with twelve bishops of the Roman Catholic Church to encourage the formation of the United Nations Charter Committee and the committee that drafted the Universal Declaration. Further, they worked through their church and synagogue contacts at the local level to build popular support for the activities of the United Nations. In fact, the more this history is dug out, the clearer it becomes that they supplied much of the intellectual and ethical substance that formed these so-called "secular" documents. Such data is of particular importance, for it helps correct the secularists' slanderous treatment of religion as the cause of human rights violations.

The results of such efforts are what leaders from most of the world's great cultures have now endorsed, what oppressed peoples appeal to for justice, and what are functionally recognizable principles of universal justice. Moreover, there are, at present, more people living under democratically ordered constitutions that seek to protect human rights, and a broader public constituency interested in defending them, than at any point in human history, and little evidence of their fading from normative use soon. Indeed, even those who violate human rights plead special conditions, temporary delays, or hermeneutical differences regarding the relative weight of some as compared to others; they seldom deny their validity as ideals or goals.

In any case, the standard secularist account of autonomous human rights is mistaken. Some hold, indeed, that if human rights discourse has no other grounds than those the secularist account approves, the movement for human rights will and should fade until another time. The reason is that human rights need to be embedded in a wider view of ethics, a deeper view of social history, and a higher view of meaning if they are to be actualized in a more embracing web of duties, virtues, commitments to justice, and concerns for the common good. Without this, rights claims spin out of control and become the Rorschach of every ideological agenda. On this ground, it can be said that the theological view is more universal, reasonable, and inclusive and that the secularist account is more particular, irrational, and narrow.


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