A report from the Commission on Unalienable Human Rights at the State Department has sparked considerable controversy. Critics objected that the report said the Founders considered religious freedom one of the foremost rights. But the Founders did believe that. They also wrote that God, not the government, is the source of our rights. The Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.”
These beliefs are not unique to Americans. Religions around the world are the seedbed for human rights and critical to their flourishing. Religious freedom is the foremost right to people around the world because it protects what makes us human. To understand why religious freedom is cherished around the globe, consider a Christian pastor in China, a Jewish woman in Germany, and a Muslim blogger in Saudi Arabia.
Pastor Wang Yi led a Christian congregation independent of the state church in China. He is now serving nine years in prison. Christina Feist was at synagogue listening to the reading of the Torah when it was interrupted by explosions and smoke. A gunman shot holes into the wooden door as the cantor told worshippers to flee for their lives. Muslim blogger Raif Badawi reportedly liked a Christian Facebook page stating that “Jews, Muslims, Christians, and atheists are all equal.” For this and posts about the role of women and politics, Saudi authorities sentenced him to public whipping and prison.
Each of them sought the same thing to live according to their deepest beliefs. Princeton professor Robert George has described human beings as “conscientious truth seekers” who share a common desire to ask fundamental questions about our origins, the existence of a creator, and the meaning of life. People in the remotest corners of the earth have sought to build their lives and communities around their beliefs. This is what makes us human.
Our shared humanity was a powerful point of agreement among the diplomats, philosophers, and lawyers who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 under First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership. They came from all over the map, geographically and ideologically. Their beliefs about human rights were shaped by diverse philosophies and religions from Confucianism and Marxism to Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Christianity.
But they all agreed that human dignity obligates governments to respect our human rights. The Declaration cites human dignity as the basis for the thirty human rights contained in it. And in its first article, the Declaration also states that human beings “are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." Because reason and conscience inspire respect for human rights, protecting these unique capacities helps to realize all human rights.
While the United Nations General Assembly approved the Declaration without a single dissenting vote, freedom of thought, conscience and religion is still widely violated. Tragically, 80 percent of the world experiences high restrictions on religious freedom with the burden falling most heavily on religious minorities.
There is a popular misconception that religion or religious diversity is the source of social conflict, but as cross-country comparisons by Brian Grim showed it is the suppression of religious freedom that escalates social hostilities into violence. Congress recognized that religious freedom violations threaten international peace and security and in 1998 passed the International Religious Freedom Act that President Clinton signed into law making religious freedom a cornerstone of our policies towards the world.
The Commission’s report did not elevate religious freedom above other inalienable human rights as critics argued. But, it did provide a much-needed clarification between unalienable human rights and positive rights. An unalienable human right belongs to everyone everywhere at all times and is not dependent on any state. But, positive rights are created by certain governments for the enjoyment of their own citizens during certain times. As the report states, “human rights are the standard against which we judge the justice of positive laws.”
From Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership at the United Nations to Secretary Mike Pompeo’s creation of the Commission, the United States has sought to protect religious freedom for everyone everywhere, not just because it is an American value. It is more than that. It is an unalienable right because it protects something special about being human, our capacity to seek truth and live according to our consciences.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 7/28/20