Religious Liberty and Inalienable Rights: American public policy and human dignity

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes the freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

This document from the U.N. General Assembly of 1948 was intended to be “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations,”[1] but the principles contained in it have not been universally acknowledged by all human governments either before or since it was written.  And while there is more than a hint of classical liberal idealism here, I remain committed to a belief in universal human dignity which should be reflected in certain inalienable rights, the rights of conscience, religion, and belief chief among these.

During the Middle Ages, priests and popes “wielded a robust influence on their king, emperor, and the laws of the realm …”[2]  With the dawning of the seventeenth century, however, the cultural tide turned, and the world of politics began to view religion with hostility.  By the twentieth century, the world was so thoroughly secularized that “in 1966 Time magazine printed starkly on its cover, ‘Is God Dead?’ recalling German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s audacious assertions at the end of the previous century.”[3]  The world appeared to be leaving the realm of divine revelation in the hopes of a white-robed clergy of scientists.  Like the editors of Time, many thought the “secularization thesis” – which predicted the diminishing and eventual defeat of religion – was the inexorable direction of Western culture.  But the eventual reality may well be more nuanced than that.

The great sociologist Peter Berger was an early proponent of the secularization thesis, claiming that by “the 21stcentury, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a world-wide secular culture.”[4]  Between 1900 and 2000, however, contrary to predictions, there was significant growth in adherents to Protestant and Catholic Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.[5] This growth led Berger to declare in 1998 that “the assumption that we live in a secularized world is false. The world today … is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever.”[6]  In point of fact, global religion made a comeback between 1960 and the end of the century, and according to Toft, Philpott, and Shah, this development was aided by forces that were supposed to bury religion: globalization, democratization, and modernization.[7]

Philosopher Roger Trigg might say that the revival of religion in the world is only natural.  He once asserted that “religious impulses are built out of very basic elements of human cognition.  They are part of what it is to be human …”[8]  In his magisterial history, Modern Times, historian Paul Johnson uses the same phrase: 

“The collapse of the religious impulse among the educated classes in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century … left a vacuum that was filled by politicians wielding power under the banner of totalitarian ideologies – whether ‘blood and soil’ fascism or atheistic Communism. Thus the attempt to live without God made idols of politics and produced the century’s ‘gangster statesmen’ – Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot – whose ‘unappeasable appetite for controlling mankind’ unleashed unimaginable horrors.”[9]  

Or as T.S. Eliot put it, ‘If you will not have God (and he is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.’”[10] This same idea was central to the narrative of Johnson’s history.  The horrors of World Wars I and II and the terrors of impending nuclear war started with the abandonment of God.  

The twentieth century told the story not only of the forsaking of God, but the active persecution of Christians.  An internationally recognized expert on religion and politics, Professor Allen D. Hertzke writes that in countries like North Korea, China, and Pakistan, believers are persecuted even today.  Having been persecuted since the rise of Communism, “Perhaps only 1 percent of North Korea’s population are now Christians. … Sent to labor camps, ‘Christians are given the heaviest work, the least amount of food, and the worst conditions of the prison.’  Witnesses report Christians being executed with hot irons; children and grandchildren of Christians face life imprisonment for the beliefs and practices of their progenitors.  A death sentence awaits those refugees forcibly returned by China who are suspected of being Christians.”[11]

China itself is not much friendlier to these religious believers: “Because of the size of the underground Christian church, the Chinese authorities keep busy arresting believers and destroying church sites.  According to Freedom House, China owns the dubious distinction of having more Christian prisoners than any country in the world.”[12]  And these aren’t the only offending nations.  Using four comprehensive studies, Grim and Finke found that 

Of the 143 countries with populations of two million or more, between July 1, 2000, and June 30, 2007, 86 percent (123 countries) have documented cases of people being physically abused or displaced from their homes because of a lack of religious freedom, that is, religious persecution.  Several of these cases, such as China, Sudan, and Afghanistan, are well known, but the persecution goes far beyond these few countries.[13]  

In the same vein, Hertzke concludes: “It has been estimated that some 200 million Christians live in countries where they face serious persecution, while another 400 million face non-trivial restrictions of their religious freedom.  Probably thousands are killed annually, victims of despotic regimes or communal violence, an astonishing figure vastly underplayed by the Western press.”[14]

According to some scholars, when governments restrict religious freedoms in the hopes of maintaining order and preventing violence, “the fact is that fewer religious freedoms often results in more violent persecution and conflict.”[15]  Both the widespread religious persecution of religious minorities and the “priority [which] the world’s dictators place on denying [religious liberty]”[16] led to grand statements like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights to secure religious freedom.  According to Linda C. Keith, “close to three-quarters of the world’s nation-states have legally recognized a comprehensive set of human rights and have pledged to take appropriate action to protect or provide these rights.”[17]  The effectiveness of the pledge is not always clear, but when the United States promotes religious freedom both within its borders and in its foreign policy, this “can be viewed as nudging nations to live up to international covenants they agreed to.”[18]  Regardless of its real impact, the near universal sentiment affirming the Universal Declaration is itself remarkable.

The importance of these comprehensive statements is hard to overstate.  Echoing Trigg’s notion about the naturalness of religion, Os Guinness writes that “nothing is more essential to humans than meaning and belonging, nothing is easier and more natural than answering the ultimate questions through religion, nothing is more vital than freedom of thought and conscience in dealing with meaning and belonging …”[19]  Jack Friedman and Timothy S. Shah write that, “if religion were natural in this strong sense, we should expect – as a matter of empirical fact – that religion cannot be suppressed, or eradicated, or dismissed as obsolescent without highly disruptive and deleterious consequences for individuals and for society as a whole.”[20]  Thus while mere affirmation of the truths may not prevent a nation’s evil, the full weight of the international community is behind these declarations.  Indeed, the Universal Declaration “[stands] in the shining tradition of the Magna Carta … the English Bill of Rights … the Virginia Declaration of Rights … the Declaration of Independence … the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen … and the U.S. Bill of Rights … [as] the greatest and most influential declarations of human rights and freedoms in history.”[21]            As of right now, neither the Universal Declaration of Human Rights nor the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights carries the weight of a law enacted by Congress, and perhaps this is as it should be.  While the United Nations is right on occasion, it also has proven to be a force from harmful “Progressive” liberalism in many third-world nations.   Sometimes the organization exposes real injustice and genocide; at other times, it pushes sexual deviancy and religious secularism.  Still, when it is right about advocating for freedom and human dignity, I am willing to speak out in its favor – although it is often a babbling, self-righteous bastion of Leftist ideologues and a seminary of cynicism.


[1] Os Guinness. The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013. 214.

[2] Monica D. Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy S. Shah. God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 10.

[3] Ibid, 1

[4] Quoted on Ibid, 1.

[5] Ibid, 2.  

[6] Quoted on ibid, 7.

[7] Ibid, 14.

[8] Roger Trigg. Religious Diversity: Philosophical and Political Dimensions. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 171.

[9] Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties. New York: Harper Collins, 1991. 48.

[10] Quoted on Allen D. Hertzke, Freeing God’s Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. 24.

[11] Hertzke, 63. 

[12] Ibid.

[13] Brian J. Grim, and Roger Finke. The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 18

[14] Hertzke, 59.

[15] Grim & Finke, 10.

[16] Hertzke, 67.

[17] Linda C. Keith. “The United Nations International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights: Does it Make a Difference in Human Rights Behavior?” Journal of Peace Research 36, no. 1 (January 1999): 97.

[18] Hertzke, 66.

[19] Os Guinness. The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013. 32.

[20] Timothy S. Shah and Jack Friedman (editors). Homo Religiosus? Exploring the Roots of Religious Freedom in Human Experience. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

[21] Guinness, 209.

One thought on “Religious Liberty and Inalienable Rights: American public policy and human dignity

  1. Pingback: Canadian Freedom, Authority, and Submission – The Garrett Ashley Mullet Show

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