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The Religious Roots of Inalienable Human Rights: Universalism vs. Pluralism?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-02-09 10:30:02
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One of the most commonly heard clichés and indeed caricatures of religion in general and of Christianity in particular is that religion fosters obscurantism and intolerance and promotes antidemocratic practices. That is to say, religion is not politically correct in our enlightened times. I’d like to look at the other side of this assumption and argue that in fact the very opposite may be true if one explores the cultural roots and conceptual framework that has made modern human rights discourse possible.

Beyond the judgment against the inhumane barbarism of Naziism, that triggered the United Nations Declaration, the great struggles facing issues of human rights and pluralism of post 1945 Europe and the West in general have had to do with racial justice, the rising parallel movements of equal rights for women, and the worldwide movements for de-colonialization. The issue now seems to be whether human rights are in any sense universal, especially in view of the fact of an accepted taken-for-granted modern pluralism.

To be sure, many people think about globalization only in economic terms. But this narrow understanding of our present situation, as if the economic challenges where not themselves largely a function of educational, technological, legal, communication, and, indeed, moral and spiritual developments, blinds us to one of the most difficult problems of universalistic principles in the face of pluralism, the conflict of values, of definitions of what is human and what is right as held by the world religions.

The background story of how this definition of human rights came to enter the official, cross-cultural, international definition of standards, however, is only now being told. In fresh research, the British scholar Canon John Nurser, has documented in extended detail the ways in which, from 1939 until 1947, leading Ecumenical Protestant figures worked not only with key figures in developing the Bretton Woods agreements, anticipating a post-war need for economic stability and development, but formed 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 drafting committees of the United Nations Charter Committee and the committee that composed the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and deeply shaped their results. Further, they worked through their church and synagogue contacts at the local level to build the popular support for what they were doing. In fact, the more of this history that 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, I submit, is of crucial importance, for it helps correct the secularists' and atheists’ slanderous treatment of religion as the principal cause of human rights violations.

While these facts give us reason to be optimistic, it must be a cautious optimism, not only because the rights of so many people continue to be savagely violated in so many places, and the exigencies of earlier battles against domination by colonized peoples and now against threats of terrorism in many countries seem to justify the use of means that threaten the rights of groups and persons in ways that are more than "collateral damage." For those who seek to defend civil rights and liberties and see them as a way to love their neighbors near and far, the potential erosion of the legal protections of civil rights and liberties is a matter of immediate and pressing practical concern. This is caused by the denial that there are in fact inalienable human rights that stand beyond and above civil rights, which are granted by a state and thus can be withdrawn by civil authority. It makes human rights a function of state policy not a matter of universal principle.

The world, after all, has known that murder is wrong for many centuries, and every people has laws against it. People know that murders occur, with very few "justifiable homicides." But they also know that the empirical fact that things happen does not negate the normative principles by which we judge them. Today, the threat to human rights is deeper than their sometimes violation; it is a profound intellectual and spiritual problem, for many today doubt that we can have or defend any trans-empirical principles to judge empirical life. And that is the crux of the issue: human rights ideas were formulated historically by those branches of the biblically-based traditions, especially Jewish and Christian.

Although one cannot affirm that all of Judaism or of Christianity has supported human rights; it has been key minority traditions that have argued their case over long periods of time and become more widely accepted. Nor can we say that even these traditions have been faithful to the implications of their own heritage at all times, and the horror stories of our pasts also have to be told to mitigate any temptation to triumphalism. Still, basic intellectual honesty demands recognition of the fact that what passes as "secular western" principles of basic human rights developed nowhere else than out of key strands of the biblically-rooted religions.

Those who doubt the validity of human rights do so on the ground that there neither is nor can there be a universalistic moral theology, master narrative, or jus naturale to support the idea. That, of course, is a universalistic claim in itself, ironically pressing toward universal moral relativism. Thus, they see "the West's" pressure to affirm human rights as rooted in a positive jus civile of a particular civilization or (in some versions) in the philosophical or religious "values" of distinct traditions or historical periods of thought. The fact of the diversity of religions and cultures is taken as an argument for a relativism in normative morality.

Thus, human rights are seen as a matter of socio-historical context. In this situation, to insist that all people be judged according to principles of human rights is seen as an act of cultural imperialism. In addition, some argue that such "values" are altogether too individualistic, and that since abstract individuals do not exist, only concrete persons-in-relationship do, we need an ethic based essentially in the particularities of specific community-embedded practices and duties.

To date, governmental claims that culture justifies deviating from human rights standards have been made exclusively by states that have demonstrably bad human rights records. State invocations of "culture" and "cultural relativism" seem to be little more than cynical pretexts for rationalizing human rights abuses that particular states would in any case commit. Yet these critics have one valid point that fuels their argument. They are partially correct insofar as they know that abstract principles and abstracted autonomous conceptions of human nature do not and cannot supply a full ethic for humanity or provide the general theory to guide a just and peaceful civil society in a global era. They also know that particular kinds of ethical obligations, rooted in specific traditions of duty, are authentic aspects of morality and identity and that the most significant of these are rooted in commitments that have become joined to religious loyalties, and that something precious would be lost or betrayed if these were denied.

In fact, most ethical issues, including those of human rights, require a synthetic judgment, one in which we must join normative first principles to the concrete matrices of experience by which we know events and read the existing ethos of our lives – that concrete network of events, traditions, relationships, commitments and specific blends of connectedness and alienation which shape the "values" of daily experience and our senses of obligation. It is not a case of “either or” but one of “both and.” The classic traditions of case-study, as well as the modern strictures of court procedure, exemplify this joining: they require both a finding of law, which involves the critical reflection on juristic first principles behind the law, and a finding of "fact," which requires reliance on the experience-gained wisdom, often having to argue before a jury of peers. Moreover, they require an anticipatory assessment of the various consequences of various courses of action implied by a judgment about the interaction of principle and fact.

Indeed, it is theologically paradigmatic that following the accounts of the Decalogue in both Exodus and Deuteronomy, surely prime example of universalistic abstract principles, the next several chapters are repositories of the casuistic results of the blending of the implications of those principles with the situations that people experienced concretely in their ethos. That joining rendered judgments that are held to contribute to the well-being of the common life and to the development of a morally righteous people. Similarly, much in the prophetic tradition makes the case against the infidelities of the people and/or the people in power by identifying the enduring principles in the covenants of old, the experience of social history in the present, and the prospects for a bleak, or a redeemed, future according to human deserts and divine mercy. And, for Christians specifically, to deny that any absolute universal can be connected to the realities of concrete historical experience in ways that lead to a redeemed future, is in fact a denial of the deepest insight of their faith: that Christ was both fully God and fully human, and that his life both fulfilled the commands of God, was concretely lived in the midst of a specific ethos, and nevertheless pointed to an ultimate future that we could not otherwise obtain. This should be our first lesson in understanding the bases of human rights. They foster specific kinds of pluralism first of all because theologically-based moral judgments are, in principle, demanding of a universalistic reference point, but are simultaneously pluralistic in their internal structure.

It is hard not to arrive at the conclusion that the affirmation of such "universal absolutes" as those stated in the Ten Commandments and less perfectly embodied in human rights provisions of our historic constitutions and such documents as the United Nations Declaration are compatible with, and in fact seen most profoundly by, certain strands of the deeper theological heritage; and that moreover without the impetus of theological insight, human rights concepts would not have come to their current widespread recognition, and that they are likely to fade over time if they are not anchored in a universal, context-transcending metaphysical reality.

At the practical level, persons are sometimes abstracted from their concrete historical situations and need the protection of universal abstract laws and rules and procedures of enforcement that say: "This person may already be alienated from his or her context of ordinary moral relationships, but the dismantling of this person’s integrity must not proceed beyond specifiable limits, it is 'indivisible.' Thou shalt not torture, abuse, violate, exploit or wantonly execute even the most miserable and guilty specimen of a human being!" We can see this in one way when we are dealing with someone accused of a crime, imprisoned, subjected to slavery or forced labor, victimized by rape or torture, forced to submit to arranged marriages or liaisons, or denied the ability to participate by voice or vote in familial, political or economic institutions that decide their fate. In these imposed situations, persons are functionally alone, abstracted, as they face a dominating power they cannot control and to which they do not give honest assent.

Without knowing what the race, gender, nationality, cultural background, social location, political preferences, character, or network of friends of a person are, we must say, abstractly, "some things ought never to be done to them;" and if persons, to live and sustain some shred of dignity in the midst of some one or other of such situations need help, "some things ought to be done for them," which implies that other people and institutions must limit their powers with regard to persons, and not to define the whole of the meaning of a person by the communities, traditions, and habits in which they are embedded. This means also that, in some ways, a profound individualism, in the sense of the moral inviolability of each person, in contrast only to communitarian regard, is required.

At other points, people abstract themselves from the matrices of life in which they dwell ordinarily, when they choose to leave home, get married (especially of the partner is one whom the parents do not approve for reasons, say, of ethnicity or religion), seek access to a profession other than that of the "station in life" into which they were born, and, most critical for our discussions, decide whether to follow the faith in which they were born and raised with dedication and devotion, or turn to another by overt rejection or positive conversion – that is by joining the inchoate company of atheists or agnostics or joining another community of faith.

All the current debates about proselytism and hence of the freedom of religion at the personal level are at stake here. Moreover, this fact of personal freedom implies the necessity of the right of people of like "chosen" faith to associate and form "voluntary associations" on religious grounds and to engage in free speech and press to seek to persuade others to join their faith. In these two areas of life, when people are under coercion that alienates them from their communities of life, or when they chose to leave their community of origin to join an association of conscientious, committed orientation, they must have the right to do so.

These two areas illustrate a certain "soul sovereignty" with regard to individual human rights that, if denied, leads to the dehumanization of humanity. From a normative Christian point of view, not always recognized by all in the tradition, each person must be free from the miseries of oppression and the threat of arbitrary destruction, and must have, at least, the basic rights to form families, to find a calling, and to convert to a world-view or religion that is in accord with a personal understanding of the "best light." Christians hold that these matters ought not be matters of coercion, and that the use of it in these areas to force or restrict person's decisions in these areas issues in a lie in the soul and the corruption of society. In this regard, a second level of pluralism is fundamentally affirmed and advocated by this tradition.

Christians and many Jews hold this view because they believe that each person is made in the "image of God." That is, they have some residual capacity to reason, to will, and to love that is given to us as an endowment that we did not achieve by our own efforts. And while every one of these areas of human life is at least imperfect, often distorted by sin, obscured by false desires or corrupted by exterior influences in sinful circumstances, the dignity conferred on us by the gift of the "imago" demands both a personal regard for each person, and a constant drive to form and sustain those socio-political arrangements that protect the relative capacities to reason, to chose, to love that are given with this gift.

Moreover, Christians hold that each person is called into particular networks of relationships in which they may exercise these capacities and to order these networks with justice, as God guides us to be just and loving agents in the world. We believe that in Christ, we learn how God wants us to re-order the institutions of the common life – sacramentally, or as others say, covenantally – that are necessary to preserve humanity, and how to make them and ourselves more nearly approximate to the redemptive purposes God has for the world. Those Christians who know the history of the development of the social and ethical implications of their faith, believe that the historical and normative defense of human rights derives from precisely these roots and that this particular tradition has, in principle, in spite of many betrayals of it by Christians, disclosed to humanity something universally valid with regard to human nature and the necessities of just social existence.

The implication of this tradition for pluralism and human rights is signaled by the direct mention of the term "church." The formation of the Christian church, anticipated in certain sociological ways, of course, in the older traditions of the synagogues and, to a degree, in the ancient Mediterranean mystery cults, was a decisive influence in the formation of pluralistic democracy and in the generation of civil society with legal protection of the rights of free association. One of the greatest revolutions in the history of humanity was the formation of institutions differentiated from both familial, tribal and ethnic identity on one hand and from political authority (as under the Caesars, Kaisers, and Czars of history), as happened in early Christianity by slowly making the claim stick that the church was the Body of Christ with an inviolable, divine sovereignty of its own.

This was gradually made more actual by those now obscure, ancient struggles between Pope and Emperor, Bishop and King, and Preacher and Prince, and again, more fully, in the modern Protestant, especially Puritan and Pietist, demanding of the right to form congregations outside of state authorization, and in the struggles for tolerance. These developments have generated a social fabric where multiple independent institutions can flourish. This has not only generated a diversified society in which colleges and universities, multiple political parties, a variety of economic corporations, and a mass of self-governing charitable and advocacy groups flourish, it has established the legitimacy of their claims to rights as associations with their own purposes. Indeed, it has made those parts of the world where these influences are most pronounced the safest havens for non-established and non-majoritarian religions, including non-Christian ones, to enjoy. The empirical consequence is that the Christian faith and its concrete social embodiment, for all the ambiguities, foibles, and outright betrayals of Christianity's own best principles (this faith did not abolish original sin, after all), has opened the door to the development of dynamic pluralistic democratic polities that are both protected by human rights ideals and laws and provide the organizational infrastructure for the protection of human rights of both persons and of groups.

Two related problems in this area face us as we face a global future. One is the basic question as to whether we can form a global civil society that does not have a theologically-based inner moral architecture at its core. Historically, no society has ever existed without a religion at its center and no complex civilization capable of including many peoples and sub-cultures within it has endured without a profound and subtle religiously oriented philosophy or theology at its core. The present world-wide rhetoric and legal agenda of human rights, with its several "generations" of rights is deeply grounded in a highly refined critical appropriation of the Biblical traditions; but many of the current activists on behalf of human rights have little place for religion or theology in their conception of what they advocate. Can it endure without attention to its origins? I for one doubt it. Jefferson would have been the first to honestly admit that he did not invent the concept of inalienable right, that it was already imbedded in the Judeo-Christian ethos, and that it condemned him or any institution or state too in as much as they tolerate the holding of slaves.

However, if human rights are universal in principle and the biblical, theological and social legacies here identified provide a strong, possibly the only, grounds for recognizing and enacting them in the midst of a highly ambiguous social history, one still has to ask what this means for those religions, philosophies, and cultures not shaped by this legacy. As Jung pointed out in comparing religions and myths in a variety of cultures and historical settings, theological motifs  are, in this area of thought and action, scripted into the deepest levels of the human soul, even if they are overlaid by obscuring other doctrines, dogmas, practices and habitual ways of thinking in many of the traditions of the world’s religions, including some branches of Judaism and Christianity. Thus our task is to identify where, in the depths of all these traditions, that residual capacity to recognize and further refine the truth and justice of human rights insights lies, for this is necessary in order to overcome what, otherwise, is likely to become a "clash of civilizations."

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