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 had considered religious freedom one of the foremost rights. However, the Founders did believe that. They also wrote that God, not government, is the source of our rights. As 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 foundation for human rights and critical to their flourishing. Religious freedom is indeed the foremost right for people around the world because it protects what makes us human. To understand why religious freedom is widely cherished around the world, 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 in China. He is now in prison. Christina Feist was at synagogue listening to the reading of the Torah when loud explosions and smoke interrupted. A gunman shot holes into the wooden door as the cantor told worshippers to flee for their lives from the service. Muslim blogger Raif Badawi liked a Christian Facebook page which stated, “Jews, Muslims, Christians, and atheists are all equal.” For this and posts about the role of women and politics, Saudi authorities sentenced him to whipping and prison.
Each of them sought to live according to their deepest beliefs. Princeton University professor Robert George described humans as “conscientious truth seekers” who share a 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 over history have sought to build lives and communities around their beliefs. This is what makes us human.
It was a powerful point of agreement among the philosophers, diplomats, and lawyers who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights under the leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948. They came from all over the map, geographically and ideologically. Their beliefs about human rights were informed by diverse philosophies and religions from Marxism and Confucianism 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 human rights contained in it. In its first article, the declaration also states that human beings “are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Because both reason and conscience inspire respect for human rights, protecting the unique capacities helps to realize all human rights around the world.
While the United Nations General Assembly approved the declaration without a single dissenting vote, freedom of thought, conscience, and religion are still widely violated today. Tragically, 80 percent of people around the world experience high restrictions on religious freedom with the greatest burden falling on religious minorities in society.
There is a popular misconception that religious diversity is the source of social conflict, but as comparisons by faith expert Brian Grim have shown, it is suppression of religious freedom that escalates social hostilities into violence. Congress recognized that religious freedom violations threaten international peace and security, and it passed the International Religious Freedom Act that President Clinton signed in 1998. The law made religious freedom a foundation of United States policies on the world.
The report from the Commission on Unalienable Human Rights did not set religious freedom above other unalienable human rights as critics argued. But it provided a much needed clarification between unalienable human rights and positive rights. Unalienable human rights belong to everyone everywhere at all times and are not dependent on any state, and positive rights are created by certain governments for the enjoyment of their own citizens at certain times. The report concludes that “human rights are the standard against which we judge the justice of positive laws.”
The United States has sought to protect religious freedom for everyone everywhere, not simply because it is a value of Americans. It is more than that. It is an unalienable right protecting something special about being human as we seek truth and live according to our consciences.
Emilie Kao is an attorney who serves as the director of the Devos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation based in Washington.