Posts tagged with: human rights

David Theroux of the Independent Institute concludes his two-part article on “secular theocracy” here (the full article can be read here). In this second part, Theroux observes that “C.S. Lewis understood that natural law applies to all human behavior including government officials.”

Indeed, it is hard to see how the rule of law can function apart from a conception of the natural law. Now as Theroux shows, not just any conception of the natural law will do. It has to be one rooted in the divine lawgiver to those created in his image, with the implications for dignity and basic rights entailed by such.

Otherwise you might have a “natural law” that empowers the strong over the weak on the basis of their ability to dominate, or their intelligence, or their “fitness” to rule. See, for instance, Sam Gregg’s explanation of how Plato and Aristotle justified slavery.

Blog author: jwitt
Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My recent piece in The American Spectator took the left to task for its misuse of the terms justice and social justice. The piece was more than a debate over semantics. In it I noted that Sojourners and its CEO, Jim Wallis, continue to promote well-intended but failed strategies that actually hurt the social and economic well-being of poor communities. I also called on everyone with a heart for the poor to set aside a top-down model of charity that “has trapped so many humans in a vicious cycle of paternalism and dependency” and instead to focus “on cultivating political and economic freedom for the world’s poor.” Sojourners’ Tim King responded here and then emailed me to ask for my thoughts on his response. I’ll start by emphasizing a few areas of agreement, adding a caveat here and there so as not to overstate the areas of overlap, and then I’ll move on to some areas of difference.

First, it’s a matter of record that politicians and other opinion leaders from both major U.S. parties have supported various forms of government-directed charity over the past several decades. Tim King is completely justified in pointing this out, and it’s important to recognize this state of affairs, since it reminds us that transforming the way we do charity won’t occur simply by voting one party out of power. Substantive change will require cultural transformation.

A second area of agreement is that, yes, there is such a thing as smart aid. PovertyCure has a good discussion of smart aid versus damaging aid here, as well as a page here on the good, the bad and the ugly in efforts to fight malaria. And in this Acton Commentary, Jennifer Roback Morse discusses some of the lessons learned in the battle against AIDS in Africa.

Third, Tim King’s blog post gives the reader the impression that that I consigned all uses of the term “social justice” to everlasting perdition, or that I want to ban the use of adjectives from the English language or something. My position is actually a bit more nuanced than this. In my article I noted that the term social justice has “a justifiable raison d’être,” “stretches back to 19th century Catholic social thought” and “was used in the context of nuanced explorations of law, ethics, and justice.” I didn’t have space to elaborate on this in the Spectator article, so I pointed to additional resources in this follow-up blog post.

King went on to say that the adjective social in social justice “highlights that justice deals with systems and structures within a society, not just with individual people. Justice can occur through the punishment of a single person for wrongdoing, but also through ending slavery or apartheid.” Absolutely. Justice deals with those things, a point I underscored in my article.

The thing is, though, that’s not how the religious left generally uses the term social justice, a reality that Tim King himself demonstrated by immediately pointing to the Circle of Protection statement as an embodiment of social justice principles. The statement is about preserving top-down government spending programs on behalf of the poor.

Another way to see how ordinary justice is being leeched out of Sojourners’ brand of social justice is to look at its official position on abortion. On the organization’s Issues page, under “What is Your Position on Abortion?” Sojourners emphasizes that “All life is a sacred gift from God, and public policies should reflect a consistent ethic of life.” Sounds like justice, plain and simple. But then look at their specific recommendations for how to protect the sacred gift of unborn human life:

Dramatically reduce abortion. Our society should support common ground policies that dramatically reduce the abortion rate by preventing unwanted pregnancies, providing meaningful alternatives and necessary supports for women and children, and reforming adoption laws.

Notice what’s missing from the list: A call to extend the most basic human right to unborn babies by making it illegal to kill them. What’s missing, in other words, is a call to extend ordinary justice to the unborn. In its place is a call to prevent “unwanted pregnancies” and to create attractive alternatives to killing unborn babies.

Sojourners and its leader say that laws against abortion are unattainable and ineffectual. But these laws wouldn’t be unattainable if the religious left joined religious conservatives in the fight to extend the right to life to the unborn. And as for ineffectual, University of Alabama professor Michael New studied the question and came to a very different conclusion in State Politics and Policy Quarterly. Here’s how he summarized his findings:

Planned Parenthood and many groups on the Catholic Left often argue that pro-life laws are ineffective. They claim that contraception spending and more generous welfare benefits are the best ways to reduce abortion rates. In reality, however, there is virtually no peer reviewed research, analyzing actual abortion data, which finds that more spending on either contraception or welfare has any effect on the incidence of abortion.

Conversely, this study adds to the sizable body of peer reviewed research which finds that legal protections for the unborn are effective at lowering abortion rates …

The study is now part of a substantial body of academic literature showing that such laws are effective in cutting abortions — and back up the anecdotal evidence seen in states like Mississippi, Michigan, South Carolina, Missouri and others where abortions have been cut by half from their previous highs thanks to the passage of several pro-life measures limiting abortions.

What Sojourners and many others on the left support for the unborn is more of their ineffective brand of redistributionist “social justice,” and never mind about the most basic form of justice for the unborn — a right to life protected by the law.

I’ll close by calling attention to one other thing in Tim King’s response, and that is Sojourners’ whole post-partisan meme. It’s a little surreal that they keep trotting this dog out after the George Soros funding fiasco. As my old colleague Jay Richards and others have reported, Sojourners had already received significant funding from the ultra-liberal, ultra-secular George Soros when Jim Wallis denied it in a public interview, going so far as to answer the charge by saying that World magazine editor and Acton senior fellow Marvin Olasky “lies for a living.” Then it came out that Sojourners has in fact received major funding from Soros, along with major funding from a who’s who list of left and ultra-leftwing organizations.

Sojourners keeps trying to hunt with the “we’re deep, not left” meme, but the dog won’t hunt anymore. A better approach would be to simply identify themselves as members of the religious left and forthrightly make a case for the specifics of their position. An even better approach would be to rethink that position from top to bottom, looking not at just the immediate and obvious effects of various government wealth transfers, but also at those long-term effects that are less obvious and often destructive.

In the mean time, if you are looking for a clear alternative to A Circle of Protection, one that emphasizes the dignity and creative capacity of the poor and the role of Christian worldview in promoting human flourishing, take a look at PovertyCure’s Statement of Principles or PovertyCure’s Facebook page. To sign a letter that directly answers the Circle of Protection, go here to Christians for a Sustainable Economy.

There are no more Christian churches in Afghanistan — not a single public house of Christian worship is left standing. In other news, NATO success against the Taliban may have been intentionally exaggerated, although we already knew that progress in that country is… slow. It’s no surprise, of course, that the United States hasn’t been able to establish self government-in-a-box in a country where, according to the State Department, religious liberty has declined measurably even in the last year.

Religious liberty must be at the heart of any free society, because if it is not protected, all other defenses are sure to fall. The abuses of Christians in Afghanistan violate not only their rights of conscience, but also their rights of property and even of free movement — their churches are seized and they are imprisoned. Contracts with Christians are not enforced, converts to Christianity are openly persecuted, and Afghan politicians approve of all of this.

We should not expect that in ten years our diplomats could have effected a constitutional transformation of Afghanistan. Liberty “is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization,” as Lord Acton said, “from the sowing of the seed at Athens, two thousand four hundred and sixty years ago, until the ripened harvest was gathered” in Western Europe. (He delivered that address in 1877, so you’ll want to update the numbers.)

But a backslide is cause for concern. It suggests that there is something wrong with the conception of human freedom that is motivating our efforts.

Earlier this year I was invited to participate in a seminar sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies and Students for a Free Economy at Northwood University. In the course of the weekend I was able to establish that while I wasn’t the first theologian to present at an IHS event, I may well have been the first Protestant theologian.

In a talk titled, “From Divine Right to Human Rights: The Foundations of Rights in the Modern World,” I attempted to trace the development of the concept of “rights” in the West historically, from the ancient world to modern times. A corollary purpose was to show the students that liberty and religion are not inimical or diametrically opposed.

Shawn Ritenour, a faculty presenter at last month’s Acton University, pursues a similar purpose in a recent post at his blog, Foundations of Economics (after his book of the same name. Timothy Terrell reviews Ritenour’s book in issue 13.2 of the Journal of Markets & Morality). Ritenour writes, “While it is true that many non-believers embrace and promote the free society and many libertarians despise Christ[, i]t does not follow, however, that Christianity and liberty have nothing to do with one another.” He goes on to provide some more resources for this point, particularly arguing that “a close study of God’s Word reveals that social institutions that promote liberty are positively mandated.”

Human rights are one of these social institutions that promote liberty and are positively mandated by the Bible. In my presentation at the Northwood seminar, I drew on some resources from the Acton film, The Birth of Freedom. In particular, I shared this video featuring John Witte Jr. that addresses the question, “How Has Judaism Contributed to Human Rights?”

As Lord Acton puts it, in ancient Israel “the throne was erected on a compact; and the king was deprived of the right of legislation among a people that recognised no lawgiver but God, whose highest aim in politics was to restore the original purity of the constitution, and to make its government conform to the ideal type that was hallowed by the sanctions of heaven.”

In response to backlash from China for awarding the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, one of the Middle Kingdom’s best-known democracy activists, Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland penned a New York Times op-ed to defend the committee’s decision.  He begins:

“The Chinese authorities’ condemnation of the Nobel Committee’s selection of Liu Xiaobo, the jailed political activist, as the winner of the 2010 Peace Prize inadvertently illustrates why human rights are worth defending.”

So far, so good.  From scathing op-eds in government newspapers to cancellation of low-level meetings with Norway, China has not hesitated to express its fervent opposition to Liu’s newfound fame.  Through its hasty and abrasive response–which included a detention of Liu’s wife–China has vindicated the Nobel Committee in full.  Jagland continues:

“The authorities assert that no one has the right to interfere in China’s internal affairs.  But they are wrong: international human rights law and standards are above the nation-state, and the world community has a duty to ensure they are respected.

The idea of sovereignty changed…during the last century, as the world moved from nationalism to internationalism.  The United Nations, founded in the wake of two disastrous world wars, committed member states to resolve disputes by peaceful means and defined the fundamental rights of all people in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The nation-state, the declaration said, would no longer have ultimate, unlimited power.”

Here Jagland’s argument begins to founder.  While the idea of an ultimately omnipotent world government is a tantalizing prospect to some, it is more the stuff of dreams than of reality.  Composing the ranks of United Nations leadership are Russia, which exercises ownership over more than half of all local newspapers and periodicals, Uganda, whose military dabbles in child-soldiering, and China, where administrative detention remains a potent weapon at the government’s disposal.  How is it that such countries are able to hold leadership posts within an organization premised on peace and progress?  Simple.  States have always been, and will foreseeably be, the primary units of the international system–hence ‘United Nations,’ denoting a unity (however tenuous) of various countries with disparate goals, priorities, and mores.  If human rights are to be promoted, the process must occur organically and locally, and not by international imposition.

Strangely absent from Jagland’s piece is a clear explanation as to why governments should respect their citizens’ rights.  At best, he seems to suggest that they should do so because, well, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights tells them to; and besides, it’s the right thing to do.  This, however, is a farce.  Oppressive governments are not going to pursue freedom because it is admirable or popular.  Rather, a higher purpose must prevail: the individual must be seen to possess dignity and worth that is divinely bestowed and eternally bound.  Finally, governments must be persuaded that genuine respect and freedom for the individual yields tremendous economic, political, and cultural fruit.  A more complex foundation is essential.

Freedom advocates like Mr. Jagland are without doubt our strategic partners in the great cause of liberty.  It is our duty, as those blessed with political and religious understanding, to communicate to them the true complexity of the battle we wage.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, at a meeting with German President Christian Wulff in Moscow today:

“I am deeply convinced that modern civilization is making the same mistake as the Soviet Union. It doesn’t matter very much why you are removing faith from pubic life. The final result, as engineers say, is the same: you get dismantling of religious consciousness,” the Patriarch said.

The Russian Church has lived for decades in a country where the official ideology was the ideology of atheism, “where churches were destroyed, crosses were removed from churches to be used for some secular purposes, where religious life was squeezed out of public life and could only be manifested in private, intimate life.”

The people who made such policies “have very good intentions and acted on the basis of their convictions, and their convictions were very humanistic: to build a just prospering society, good future, where people would be happy and would have everything they wanted to have, but religion, those crosses on churches were getting in the way,” the Patriarch said.

“It scares me that something illogical is now taking place in some countries, including in Western Europe. No one is saying that the Christian presence should be removed for the sake of a good future, but they are using a different philosophy: they want to remove crosses from schools and religion from public life in the name of human rights,” Patriarch Kirill said.

More on Interfax.

The Birth of Freedom opens and closes with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. King appealed to Americans to live out the true meaning of this nation’s creed that all men are created equal. The documentary sets that appeal within the broader context of the Christian West’s slow but ultimately triumphant march to freedom.

Send it to a friend or loved one. Let freedom ring.

Joan Lewis, EWTN’s Rome bureau chief, covered Pope Benedict XVI’s general audience address on Wednesday, July 8 , during which the pontiff publicly commented on his landmark social encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” the day after it was officially released by the Vatican. Below is a summary of Benedict’s address to visitors in Rome, including Lewis’s own translation.

Yesterday, the Vatican released Pope Benedict’s third encyclical, “Caritas in veritate,” along with an official summary of the 144-page document that has six chapters and a conclusion. In addition, there was a very worthwhile two-hour press conference with summaries of the document’s salient points, as well as a Q&A session between reporters and Cardinals Martino and Cordes, Archbishop Crepaldi and Prof. Stefano Zampagni.

But surely the best summary of Pope Benedict’s just-released encyclical is the one he himself gave at today’s general audience, held in the Paul VI Hall and highlighting the moral criteria that must underpin economic choices.

In only 1,300 words (the encyclical has 30,466), the Pope explained the document’s contents and his intention in writing it. He began by explaining that Caritas in veritate was inspired by a passage from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians where “the Apostle speaks of acting according to the truth in love: ‘Rather, living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ’.” Thus, said Benedict, “charity in truth is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity. For this reason, the entire social doctrine of the Church revolves around the principle ‘Caritas in veritate’. Only with charity, illuminated by reason and by faith, is it possible to pursue development goals that possess more human and humanizing values.”


From Philip Jenkins at Foreign Policy:

Ironically, after centuries of rebelling against religious authority, the coming of Islam is also reviving political issues most thought extinct in Europe, including debates about the limits of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to proselytize. And in all these areas, controversies that originate in a Muslim context inexorably expand or limit the rights of Christians, too. If Muslim preachers who denounce gays must be silenced, then so must charismatic Christians. At the same time, any laws that limit blasphemous assaults on the image of Mohammed must take account of the sensibilities of those who venerate Jesus.

The result has been a rediscovery of the continent’s Christian roots, even among those who have long disregarded it, and a renewed sense of European cultural Christianity. Jürgen Habermas, a veteran leftist German philosopher stunned his admirers not long ago by proclaiming, “Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization. To this day, we have no other options [than Christianity]. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.” Europe may be confronting the dilemmas of a truly multifaith society, but with Christianity poised for a comeback, it is hardly on the verge of becoming an Islamic colony.

In the June issue of Reason Magazine, Ezra Levant details his long and unnecessary struggle with Canadian human rights watchdogs over charges that he insulted a Muslim extremist, who claimed to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. This sorry episode also cost Levant, the former publisher of Canada’s Western Standard magazine, about $100,000. Read “The Internet Saved My Life: How I beat Canada’s ‘human rights’ censors.” (HT: RealClearPolitics). Levant sums it up this way:

The investigation vividly illustrated how Canada’s provincial and national human rights commissions (HRCs), created in the 1970s to police discrimination in employment, housing, and the provision of goods and services, have been hijacked as weapons against speech that offends members of minority groups. My eventual victory over this censorious assault suggests that Western governments will find it increasingly difficult in the age of the Internet to continue undermining human rights in the name of defending them.

In a Religion & Liberty review of “Facing the World: Orthodox Christian Essays on Global Concerns” by Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), I talked about the archbishop’s critique of human rights laws and how they should be properly understood by Christians.

In the essay “Orthodoxy and Human Rights,” Anastasios takes a critical view of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, and the later development of these declarations into exhaustive lists of economic, social, and political rights. Anastasios makes an important distinction between rights declarations, and their enforcement through legal and political forms of coercion, and Christianity’s preferred method of persuasion and faith. “Declarations basically stress outward compliance,” he says, “while the gospel insists on inner acceptance, on spiritual rebirth, and on transformation.”

Anastasios reminds us of Christianity’s contribution to the development of political liberty. “Human rights documents,” he says, “presuppose the Christian legacy, which is not only a system of thought and a worldview that took shape through the contributions of the Christian and Greek spirit, but also a tradition of self-criticism and repentance.” Those words should be hung from banners everywhere new constitutions and declarations are being drafted.