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Conscience and Human Rights

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For the last several years, lawmakers and activists have crossed party lines to pass landmark legislation defending human rights internationally. They agreed, for example, on the need to create a US commission to promote religious liberty; on measures to crack down on sexual trafficking; and on a law threatening sanctions against North Korea for its arbitrary arrests and labor camps. Evangelical groups such as the Salvation Army have actually found common cause with feminist organizations such as the National Organization for Women.

Earlier this month, liberal Democrat Nancy Pelosi joined conservative Republican Frank Wolf to highlight continuing human-rights abuses in communist China. Democrat Hilary Clinton teamed up with Republican Sam Brownback at a conference on human rights and American foreign policy. Lobbyists from Southern Baptist Convention have joined with members of the Democratic Black Caucus to support a peace accord for Sudan. The same players are demanding US action to stop the bloodletting in Darfur.

Is this a cynical marriage of political convenience? Whatever some of the motives may be, I think there's something deeper going on, something that goes to the heart of what it means to be human.

The most important rights documents of the last 200 years agree that there exists a set of moral norms, or universal rights, that are grounded in human nature. They include the right to security, freedom from slavery, and freedom of religion.

Religious believers view these rights as a gift from God, belonging to every person who, by nature, bears His image. Sadly, Christian conservatives have not been known as champions of human rights on the world stage. The growth of global Christianity, however, has confronted believers in America with the extent of human suffering. Probably more than any other issue, the persecution of fellow Christians in foreign lands has awakened a slumbering church. Many now say they'd betray their deepest ideals by refusing to join with others to try to stop it.

Liberal and secular groups, prodded by their own sense of outrage, have long engaged in human rights advocacy. Yet they reject absolute claims about human nature, and they don't like God talk to justify civic and political freedom. Nevertheless, their sense of moral urgency is helping them to make room for people of faith.

Is this the triumph of conscience over politics? Perhaps. It would be easy, after all, for liberals and conservatives to simply ignore one another, to stay the course of mutual mistrust.

But there are few forces as powerful in human experience as the conviction of conscience. Our likes and dislikes are one thing, but conscience is something else: It is the moral voice-some would say the divine witness-that often runs counter to our desires. For conscience tells us what we ought to do, whether we like it or not. Right now this inner voice seems to be telling political adversaries to work together for human rights.

In this season of failed states, prisoner abuse, and religious violence, let's hope they keep listening.

Mr. Loconte is a research fellow in religion at the Heritage Foundation and editor of "The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm" (Rowman & Littlefield). He served as a member of the Congressional Task Force on the United Nations.

First aired on NPR's All Things Considered

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