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Human Rights and Religion: The Highest Possible Stakes

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Human rights: what are they? Americans, at least, will immediately think of Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights..." There is a connection between God and human rights, beginning with the right to religious freedom. (It is the First Amendment that addresses this right, after all.)

On March 2, 2012, the new Cardinal of New York, Timothy Dolan, wrote a public letter to his fellow bishops of the US Catholic Conference, calling for a struggle to preserve a fundamental human right, religious freedom. He wrote, "Brothers, we know so very well that religious freedom is our heritage, our legacy and our firm belief, both as loyal Catholics and Americans. There have been many threats to religious freedom over the decades and years, but these often came from without. This one sadly comes from within. As our ancestors did with previous threats, we will tirelessly defend the timeless and enduring truth of religious freedom." (Italics in the original) He is referring to a Health and Human Services directive that would require Catholic institutions to provide health insurance that includes contraception.

Cardinal Dolan pointed out that the US Supreme Court recently upheld the Lutheran Church's right to fire its ministers without reference to anything other than its own teachings. The plaintiff had been asked to resign because of a medical condition. She refused and threatened to sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Because she sought relief in a secular court, the church fired her, on the grounds that going to court violated a scriptural injunction. In Hosanna-Tabor vs. EEOC, the Court unanimously upheld the Church. Chief Justice Roberts wrote, "[t]he interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission."

For secularists, Dolan's belligerence is bound to be fresh meat for their struggle to make religion an entirely private affair with no standing in the public square, something done among "consenting adults behind closed doors," but without any political standing. There are those who would uphold human rights over against religion itself, tearing at the ground on which the basic rationale for rights stands: we are all equal because our Creator gave us Rights. Some have attempted to replace this norm by claiming that we are all equal in our basic humanity before one another, so as to avoid the god question altogether. But this is fraught with its own problems, namely, that the exercise of power rarely happens with that in mind. Quite the contrary. Murderous regimes have always claimed that "the situation is too serious" to be able to indulge in upholding rights.

Four days before Dolan's letter, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, chose the World Council of Churches to deliver a wide-ranging treatment of human rights and religion. "Questions about human rights have begun to give anxiety to some religious communities who feel that alien cultural standards are somehow being imposed -- particularly in regard to inherited views of marriage and family. And so we face the worrying prospect of a gap opening up between a discourse of rights increasingly conceived as a universal legal 'code' and the specific moral and religious intuitions of actual diverse communities."

In very different ways, both men were saying something fundamental about the intuition enshrined on July 4, 1776. Dolan's ferocity and Williams' gravity differ in tone but not in the essence of their message. The presenting issue at stake in the HHS ruling is whether the government can mandate that a religious institution must pay for what its moral code forbids, as a matter of human rights.

Never mind whether the Roman Catholic Church's ban on artificial contraception is right or wrong -- the Episcopal Church holds, and I teach, that there are valid moral reasons for married couples to use contraception. But can the US government, on the basis of human rights, force the Catholic Church to pay for what it forbids?

Williams addresses a concern that has similar features: can Western human-rights values be imposed on African nations, so that they can be required to uphold the dignity of homosexual relationships? The question is particularly acute these days, since certain politicians across equatorial Africa are promising to criminalize homosexual sex (or have already) as a corrupting Western influence, supposedly unknown to "native" Africans. Muslims routinely accuse Christians in Africa of supporting homosexual vice. "You people (Westerners) worship human rights instead of God," I was told in Kinshasa a few years ago.

The dilemma is that the right to practice one's religion, which has in recent decades in the West been taken virtually for granted, is a fundamental part of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." It ends up being pitted against other rights. Women are not always prescribed birth control pills to prevent unwanted pregnancies, but to help with other conditions. Does their right to health care matter less than the Church? Gay activists in Africa suffer and die because of the prejudice against them, like David Kato a little over a year ago in Uganda. Does the Church in say, Uganda have the right not to speak out against the oppression of a minority?

So what to do? Ditch religion or ditch rights is the way the choice is proposed -- pick your side and fight to win at any cost. This is why Dolan's battle cry is unhelpful. What is needed is not a war but a better political philosophy, that recognizes that we are to respect each other's rights in ways that the law in its necessarily restricted way cannot force us always to do. That is actually one role of religion, to remind not just its adherents but "all people of good will" -- to whom papal letters are often addressed, for instance -- that we all must recognize each other's needs, so that we all might flourish.

I recently met a rabbi who said that on leaving rabbinical school he was given a sound piece of advice: "do not love Torah more than people." To defend our religious freedom, our essential human right given to every human by God, cannot be about defending the truth of our faith. The only way to do that effectively is to live it out in the way we live among others, how we treat them. Episcopalians promise God in Baptism to "respect the dignity of every human being," as we strive for justice and peace in the communities and nations where we live. One great temptation for all people has always been "to respect the dignity of every human being like Us." The second is like unto it: to judge people as if we share God's perspective but do not fall under judgment. (I still hear too many stories of people who were told they are going to Hell for disagreeing with some religious tenet. The best reply to this is, "See you there...").

That said, can the US government force the Catholic Church to pay for contraceptive services? No. Their religious freedom is indeed at stake, and would be violated. Should the Catholic Church militate for equal rights for women before the law and support access to health care as a basic human right? Yes indeed -- the credibility of the Gospel requires it. Should a church dump an employee who is chronically ill? Doesn't secular law allow for that, especially when the employee can no longer work? The churches are also ordinary economic actors, and yet must judge themselves by higher standards of conduct than the surrounding society, according to the Scriptures. The Episcopal Church's recent conflicts in the courts with some schismatics over misappropriated property (which we have won) could make us seem to some to be more interested in assets than in proclaiming our faith. To uphold effectively the right of religious freedom, we have to uphold the other basic human rights with integrity.

We, the religious, need to be the standard-bearers of human rights as a direct consequence of our faith in a creative God. That means going well beyond what the legal system can require. Those who are calling for a fight will not help but hinder the task at hand. "For human rights to be more than an artificially constructed series of conventions, embodied in a set of claims, there has to be some global account of what human dignity means and how it is grounded. It cannot be left dependent on the decision of individuals or societies to act in this way: that would turn it into a particular bundle of cultural options among others - inviting the skeptical response that it is just what happens to suit the current global hegemonies." The Archbishop of Canterbury goes on to point out just what the stakes are: not our own freedom alone, but the welfare of the human race and the glory of our God. We can never allow those two to be separated. If we let them, we in the Church may gain the whole world, but in the end, we will lose our very soul.

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