March 13, 2006
By Grace Smith
Despite the increasing appeal of democratic ideas around much of
the world, a core democratic principle -- freedom of religion --
continues facing stiff resistance.
The problem is especially acute, of course, in much of the
Islamic world. Dhabihu'llah Mahrami, a lifelong Bahai, 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.
The State Department's 2005 International Religious Freedom Report
found "genuine religious freedom does not exist" in North Korea.
And the latest Freedom House study said "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
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
"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 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 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
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 no one should suffer "attacks upon
his honour and reputation." Article 24 claims "everyone has the
right to rest and leisure, including... periodic holidays with
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
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
A researcher in the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at
the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
First Appeared in the Washington Times
Despite the increasing appeal of democratic ideas around much of the world, a core democratic principle -- freedom of religion -- continues facing stiff resistance. The problem is especially acute, of course, in much of the Islamic world. Dhabihu'llah Mahrami, a lifelong Bahai, 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.
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