February 3, 2006 | Commentary on
Rethinking the First Freedom
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
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
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
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,
, 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,
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
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
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
Grace V. Smith is a researcher in the DeVos Center for Religion
and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).