On Thursday, the Heritage Foundation hosted a panel discussion titled “How to Protect International Religious Freedom from the Politicization of Human Rights.” The talk focused on how leftists today have expanded the concept of human rights to the point that it is often used as a weapon to suppress religious freedom. One speaker referred to the “human rights inflation” as rights that were once believed to have their basis in God and the human soul are now indistinguishable from economic and social goals that were traditionally limited to the realm of politics. This equivocation means that actual human rights like the freedom of speech or freedom of conscience are increasingly under attack even as international organizations support expanding bureaucracies devoted to promoting the increasingly vague idea of “human rights”.
Congressman Robert Aderholt (R-AL) introduced the panel and the importance of religious freedom. He pointed out that limitations initially meant to prevent state-sponsored religion have been used to limit the free expression of religion. He argued:
“The first amendment does not demonize the role of religion in the individual’s life. Quite the opposite. It states that the freedom of religious belief is a sacred right, so important to the life of the individual it must be free from government interference. The first amendment does not instruct religious belief to stay out of government, it ensures government stays out of people’s religious beliefs.”
Aderholt pointed to the recent Masterpiece Cakeshop decision where the Supreme court narrowly upheld the first amendment in a compelled speech case as an example of an attack on freedom of religion in the name of inclusivity.
Emilie Kao, the Director of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center, acted as the moderator for the event. She explained the problems that the speakers would discuss along two basic themes: first, the “inflation of human rights” to include social and economic goals that “should not be confused with human rights themselves”, and second, the “growing tendency to prioritize the beliefs of some identity groups over the freedom of individuals.” These problems are rooted in a society that increasingly rejects the traditional beliefs of religions as being dogmatic and discriminatory and therefore unacceptable in a modern society.
Dr. Aaron Rhodes, President of the Forum for Religious Freedom and author of “The Debasement of Human Rights: How Politics Sabotage the Ideal of Freedom”, outlined the relationship between human rights and freedom of religion and expanded on the problem of an increasingly diluted understanding of both terms. According to Dr. Rhodes, human identity necessarily requires the ability to think freely and to “discern what is moral and to make moral choices.” Rhodes stated “this quest for truth can’t be violated without committing a crime against truth itself.” He drew a distinction between these natural rights that are based in objective identity and the political goals often labelled as human rights.
Dr. Rhodes pointed out that all governments want to improve the economic and social standing of their citizens, assuring the audience that “I’m not arguing against social security or any program that we vote on to help our fellow citizens.” This qualification was the crux of his argument, that societal goods like welfare are voted on and agreed upon by the citizens, that they may even have a clear “utilitarian value”, but Dr. Rhodes warned against proclaiming anything deemed to be in the interest of the “public good” a human right
An expanding international bureaucracy surrounding human rights has declared more and more goods to be rights. Dr. Rhodes pointed out that there are “667 human rights provisions in United Nations treaties, and 710 in those of the Council of Europe.” He cited as an example of the “inflation of rights” the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights which protects “the right to access a free employment service as a fundamental human right.” While employment counseling may be a legitimate goal of government,actual human rights are trivialized when it is elevated to the same status as prohibitions on slavery, freedom of religion, or other long-held human rights. Dr. Rhodes summarized by saying “we must recover the meaning of human rights, and while governments need to be held accountable for their abuses, that is a challenge for civil society.”
Dr. Shae Garrison, a Senior Advisor for Concerned Women for America, echoed Dr. Rhodes’ sentiment. She called on citizens to “recognize the difference between the God-given rights of the individual and the things that we call rights that are actually only the interest of certain groups of society.” She argued along similar lines to illustrate how religious freedom is also a universal good for societies. According to Dr. Garrison, religious freedom allows citizens greater control over their lives because it is tied to the freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. She referred to a study from the Hudson Institute demonstrating a correlation between religious freedom and other benefits of liberal democracies, in particular economic competitiveness and social cohesion.
However religious freedom is valuable not only for its pragmatic benefits, but because it is a necessary part of human society. Benjamin Bull, the Executive Director of Advocacy with the First Liberty Institute, pointed to churches as the quintessential expression of human rights, because they exhibit not just freedom of religion but also of speech, assembly, and conscience. He related a series of stories about his experience as an attorney watching religious figures be punished by “hate speech” laws. “The left, and I use that as the activist left, are using these newly manufactured, minted human rights to basically crush traditional human rights” Bull argued. “In this new world that we’re dealing with, almost directly from Orwell, there’s something called a new human right not to hear words that you find offensive. . . Every country in Europe and Canada has passed such laws.”
Bull recalled the most recent reminder of these restrictions on religious expression, the Trinity Western University case in Canada, where that country’s supreme court ruled against a Christian law school for having students sign an agreement that they would not engage in sex that was not between a man and a woman. Bull pointed out that European churches, in a bid for inclusion, are being required to allow atheists to be members. He warned that this will soon be an issue in churches whose members vote on clergy leadership. Bull went on to argue that the ambassadors to international bodies like the United Nations are often out of touch with the citizens they are meant to represent and so are readily willing to force a radical leftist agenda promoting anti-religious restrictions in the name of social justice.
Bull responded to a question from the audience about Evangelical churches being forced to accept homosexual marriage by describing how it is the unavoidable result of hate speech laws meant to protect people from being offended. He said:
“Wherever hate speech is enacted, inevitably it’s a slippery slope to doom. . . I think that the better answer is the traditional answer of the United State which was if there is speech that you don’t like, answer it with counter speech. If there’s ideas that you don’t want to hear in the marketplace of ideas, have a better idea, have a debate. The answer is never censorship.”
This free exchange of ideas has always been a defining virtue of American society and can be traced back to our heritage as a nation founded with the guiding principles of freedom of religion. Human rights draw their authority from the universal truth of what the good is for humans. They precede the existence of government and do not rely on political organizations for their legitimacy. Politicians may be quick to label public goods as human rights out of utility, but this inevitably leads to an “inflation” of the value of human rights. The speakers at the Heritage Foundation’s panel warned about the dangers to religious freedom of this devaluation of human rights and explained why we have to return to a traditional understanding of the philosophical foundation of what human rights are.