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February 3, 2006

Rethinking the First Freedom

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Despite the increasing appeal of democratic ideas around much of the world, a core democratic principle -- freedom of religion -- continues to face stiff resistance.

The problem is especially acute, of course, in much of the Islamic world. Dhabihu'llah Mahrami, a lifelong Baha'i, died last month in an Iranian prison, 10 years into a life sentence on charges of apostasy. Three Christian women were recently sentenced to three years in jail after a court in West Java, Indonesia, found them guilty of attempting to convert Muslim children to Christianity.

The right to worship freely remains elusive elsewhere as well. For instance, the State Department's 2005 International Religious Freedom Report found that "genuine religious freedom does not exist" in North Korea. And the latest Freedom House study concludes that "there is little respect in China for religious freedom."

The issue of religious liberty is clearly one of the toughest hurdles to bringing democratic reform to otherwise closed societies. Yet, many human-rights activists and government officials fail to appreciate the nature and significance of religious freedom in the human-rights debate. The Bush administration's democracy-building agenda would be strengthened by devoting more attention to what America's Founders regarded as "the first freedom."

Why first? Because religious freedom is a natural right that cannot justly be withheld. Its importance is underscored in the Second Vatican Council's declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. Promulgated by Pope Paul VI on Dec. 7, 1965, the document reasserts the Catholic Church's teaching that religious freedom is a right that innately belongs to every individual simply because of his or her humanness.

"The right of man to religious freedom has its foundation in the dignity of the person," it reads, "whose exigencies have come to be … fully known to human reason through centuries of experience." Here is a religious claim about human dignity that can resonate with Catholics and non-Catholics alike in its appeal to reason, experience and moral intuition.

In language that echoes arguments made by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson about freedom of conscience, Dignitatis Humanae insists that man's free will and capacity for reason imply a personal moral responsibility that can be pursued fully only when men are free: Mankind is "at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth." It is the search for truth -- a God-given human inclination -- that is grievously violated when we are not free to obey our consciences. Here again, Dignitatis Humanae speaks with a clear voice: "The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power."

The political consequences of this are obvious: Religious freedom demands "immunity from coercion in civil society." In a free society, the state must never use its power to compel, nor prohibit, religious belief. Anti-conversion laws and the practice of imprisoning or harassing religious minorities -- common in much of the world -- fly in the face of such wisdom.

Yet the essential insight of Dignitatis Humanae helps set apart basic human rights from the explosion of "rights talk" in our age. In this regard, even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, arguably the international community's best effort at defining and enumerating human rights, falls short. It rightly recognizes "the inherent dignity and … the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family." Yet it blurs that powerful defense of inherent dignity and inalienable rights with a laundry list of entitlements.

The Universal Declaration includes economic and social "rights" that are by no means on par with inherent, or natural, rights. Article 12, for example, insists that no one should suffer "attacks upon his honour and reputation." Article 24 claims that "everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including … periodic holidays with pay."

When the right to a paid holiday is enumerated alongside the right to worship, we can only wince at the bald politicization of the human-rights agenda. No wonder there hasn't been a single U.N. resolution criticizing the absence of religious liberty in Saudi Arabia, or the sectarian violence meted out to religious minorities in Sudan.

U.N. officials are now trying to rescue a Human Rights Commission utterly discredited by its cynical treatment of gross human-rights abuses. As U.S. and international leaders undertake this task, they should make clear the moral distinction between basic political rights and economic or social preferences. They should put a high priority in their negotiations on religious liberty as the touchstone -- the beginning, really -- of human rights.

Without a recovery of belief in the inherent dignity of man, without a recognition of the God-given worth of the individual, it's hard to see how they could succeed. What else can make people encounter others so obviously different from themselves and see them as their equal in dignity? To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, the problem is not that such a respect for human dignity has been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.

Grace V. Smith is a researcher in the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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