Religious Communities in the Struggle for Human Rights

by Robert Traer

Robert Traer is an adjunct faculty member of St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 28, 1988, p. 835. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Perhaps the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a sign of a new world community in which the religious traditions will find common ground. Jews, Christians and Muslims do agree that rights are gifts from God, and that people have duties toward one another and God that require the recognition of fundamental human rights.

Religious support for human rights may seem commonplace today, but this was not always the case. The growing consensus about human rights among religious leaders is a new development that has yet to be widely recognized and understood. This revolution in religious thought is exemplified by religious leaders’ current support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was drafted by the UN Commission on Human Rights.

The UN General Assembly unanimously approved the declaration on December 10, 1948, partly in response to the growing awareness of the Nazi concentration-camp horrors. When the Nazi officials on trial at Nuremberg argued in their defense that they had merely obeyed the laws of the state, public opinion quickly agreed that there ought to be a law proscribing such crimes against humanity. The Universal Declaration was the first step in this direction.

It asserts that "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." It acknowledges that "disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts" that have outraged the public conscience. And it affirms that justice and peace require the protection of human rights by the rule of law.

The declaration presents no philosophical justification for human rights, nor does it describe in detail what political arrangements they might require. It merely notes that "the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom." As early as 1951 Jacques Maritain referred to this notion of an international consensus as a kind of "secular faith."

The text sets forth "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations." Never before had the treatment of the citizens of a state been recognized as an international authority’s legal concern. Despite obvious and continuing difficulties in enforcing human rights law, "there has been no more radical development in the whole history of international law than this bursting, as it were, of its traditional boundaries," John Humphrey remarks in "The Revolution in the International Law of Human Rights" (Human Rights, Spring 1975, p. 209)

The Universal Declaration begins by affirming that .human beings, "born free and equal in dignity and rights," are entitled to human rights "without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. The rights set forth are primarily civil and political and include the rights to life, liberty, security, protection against torture and arbitrary arrest, equal protection of the law, freedom of movement, participation in government, religious freedom, freedom of assembly and association, and ownership of property. The declaration also affirms social and economic rights. Everyone "is entitled to realization, through national effort and international cooperation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality."

Therefore, the declaration upholds "the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment," as well as the right to leisure time and education. And it affirms that "everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."

When the United Nations approved the declaration, only a few representatives of religious institutions were, among the advocates of this historic statement. In particular, Lutheran theologian O. Frederick Nolde, who represented the Federal Council of Churches and was the first director of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA), lobbied very effectively for inclusion of human rights in the UN Charter and for specific provisions in the Universal Declaration.

However, many religious communities expressed substantial opposition to the Universal Declaration. Islamic Saudi Arabia abstained from voting for the declaration because it did not explicitly acknowledge that all rights come from God. Many Protestants were also concerned that the declaration did not refer directly to God as the creator of rights. And while the papal nuncio in Paris, Monsignor Roncalli -- later to become Pope John XXIII -- aided René Cassin in drafting the declaration, the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano attacked it for failing to recognize the sovereignty of God.

Now, forty years later, it seems that all the major religious traditions claim to have fathered human rights. For instance, in writings such as Judaism and Human Rights (Norton, 1972) , edited by Milton Konvitz, Jews argue that human rights are rooted in the Jewish tradition. David Daube elucidates examples of human rights in rabbinic literature, and Konvitz is joined by Emmanuel Rackman and Herbert Brichto in asserting that the democratic ideals of freedom and equality are derived from Jewish values. In Human Rights in Religious Traditions (Pilgrim Press, 1982) , Rabbi Daniel Polish concludes that the idea of human rights "derives in the Jewish tradition from the basic theological affirmation of Jewish faith." Furthermore, Israeli legal scholar Haim H. Cohn has recently published a commentary on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights titled Human Rights in Jewish Law (KTAV, 1984) In this detailed study, Cohn concludes that both Jewish law and the declaration support the fundamental notion that those who claim any right have the fundamental duty to secure respect for the rights of others.

In the Christian community, conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics have joined liberal Protestants in affirming support for human rights. As early as 1946 Jacques Ellul published a theological argument for human

rights in a volume that was republished in 1960 as The Theological Foundation of Law. Only recently, however, have other conservative Christians voiced theological support for human rights. John Warwick Montgomery, a lawyer and philosopher as well as theologian, provides perhaps the most comprehensive argument by a conservative in his recent book Human Rights and Human Dignity: An Apologetic for the Transcendent Perspective (Zondervan, 1986) He concludes that rights derived from the inerrant teachings of the Bible give authority to the rights set forth in the Universal Declaration, even exceeding its claims in significant ways.

Carl F. H. Henry, founding editor of Christianity Today, used Warwick’s biblical argument for human rights in "The Judeo-Christian Heritage and Human Rights," his 1986 Paine Lecture in Religion delivered at the University of Missouri-Columbia. However, he criticized the Universal Declaration for not acknowledging that rights are derived from duties to God and to one’s neighbor. Other conservative Christians have been less reluctant to embrace the Universal Declaration. For example, as early as 20 years ago General Frederick Coutts of the Salvation Army wrote: "Salvationists are identified with the high ideals of social justice and acceptance of the unchallenged rights of every man as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" (Human Rights and the Salvation Army [Campfield Press, 19681, p. 5)

However, it is undoubtedly Roman Catholics who have made human rights a central issue for Christian ethics around the world. John XXIII first broke ground with the encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963) , which put human rights at the center of Catholic social teaching as the necessary condition for human dignity. In this watershed in Roman Catholic social teaching, John XXIII identified the Universal Declaration as a sign of the times and an important step in the journey toward a world community subject to the rule of law.

Paul VI made the Universal Declaration the cornerstone of all his work. And John Paul II has reaffirmed the declaration in his recent encyclical Solicitudo Rei Socialis. It may be that John Paul II is the single most important human rights advocate alive today, for on his travels around the globe he has proclaimed again and again that human rights are part of the church’s message and are fundamental for worldwide justice and peace. Through encyclicals and the statements of recent synods, human rights have become the centerpiece of Roman Catholic social teachings all over the world.

The centrality of human rights to Catholic social teaching is made clear in the opening chapter of the National Conference of Bishops pastoral letter on the U.S. economy. This critique of economic life is based on teaching about human rights. The extent to which this teaching pervades the Roman Catholic Church is further evident in the church’s activities in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In 1976 Roman Catholics joined Methodists and Lutherans in Bolivia in organizing a "Permanent Assembly on Human Rights" for the stated purpose of enforcing the Universal Declaration. Moreover, in 1970 the Associated Members of the Episcopal Conference of Eastern Africa, which includes the Catholic bishops of Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, affirmed the declaration as a basis for parents’ right to choose their children’s education and for the right of free expression and association.

In the Philippines, Bert Cacayan describes how his devout mother was "converted" to human rights activism by the church’s teachings:

Now my mother still goes to church every day. She is a prayer leader and still sings in the church choir. But more than that, she attends conscientizing seminars, she joins mass demonstrations and rallies protesting violations of human rights. She visits detainees and leads the apostleship of prayer group in taking radical options on certain political issues like boycotting sham elections. She teaches her children that the struggle for freedom and justice is an imperative of the Christian faith [‘The Humanizing Breeze of Vatican II," Asia Link, March 1986, p. 5].

And in Africa, prayers for human rights have been explicitly incorporated into stations of the cross, as J. M. Waliggo reports in his article "A Prayer of Solidarity with the Suffering and the Oppressed of the World" (African Christian Studies, December 1986, p. 59)

Among Protestants advocating the theological necessity of affirming human rights are Jurgen Moltmann, who elaborated on this concern in his book On Human Dignity:

Political Theology and Ethics (Fortress, 1984) , and Walter Harrelson, who in The Ten Commandments and Human Rights (Fortress, 1980) embraced the Universal Declaration as a modern statement of biblical values. In addition, many Protestant denominational and ecumenical statements support the Universal Declaration.

In 1980 a seminar on human rights in Islam sponsored in part by the Union of Arab Lawyers reaffirmed this position in its report Human Rights in Islam. The following year the Islamic Foundation published the "Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights," which is considered sufficiently authoritative to be cited in an Islamic court decision in Pakistan. And in 1987 a "Draft Charter on Human and People’s Rights in the Arab World" received the unanimous support of the 1,500 members of the Arab Union of Lawyers. Both of these statements support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but justify and define these rights in terms of Islamic law and Scripture.

Thus support for human rights in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities follows a pattern: each group believes that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights standards established through international law derive authority from the teachings of its own religious tradition. To be sure, Jews, Christians and Muslims differ on some specific issues, but they disagree about these issues within their own traditions as well. For instance, Christians disagree about the equal rights of men and women -- which the Universal Declaration affirms -- even as some Christians differ on this point with some Muslims (who also differ about this among themselves)

Jews, Christians and Muslims do agree that rights are gifts from God, and that people have duties toward one another and God that require the recognition of fundamental human rights. In this regard, these traditions have more in common with each other than with secular humanists who seek to justify human rights on the basis of reason alone. It is significant that Jews and Christians joined forces to establish human rights law through the United Nations. And it is significant that recently Muslims joined Christians in South Africa to protest human rights violations.

Perhaps, as John XXIII proposed, the Universal Declaration is a sign of a new world community in which the religious traditions will find common ground for resolutely resisting the dehumanizing forces of this age. In opposition to the blatant violation of human rights everywhere in the world, perhaps the faithful of all religious traditions will join together to do the will of God for the sake of all humanity.