Christianity and Rights Talk

Christians have a wide range of views on all sorts of issues. Thus it is not surprising that they may agree to disagree on issues concerning human rights policy in general and things like a Bill of Rights (BoR) in particular. Although I have written about such matters elsewhere, I want to explore these matters a bit further.

Christians of the left tend to be more in favour of a BoR, and see it a part of a wider “social justice” emphasis. They rightly point out that biblical Christianity is concerned about such things as human rights and looking after the interests of the marginalised and disadvantaged. But they wrongly tend to assume that such concerns are the domain of the left, and that believers on the right are not interested in such matters.

The truth is, Christians of all political persuasions are – or should be – interested in such issues as human rights and the wellbeing of all people. It is just that they differ on the political, legal and economic means by which to achieve justice for one and all.

As to rights talk in general and a BoR in particular, some Christians may be rightly concerned about a number of issues. And when these believers are critical of such things, that does not mean they are disinterested in justice issues or human rights. It simply means that they may have reservations about the rights industry and the way these matters are being pursued. Let me deal with several major concerns.

Whose Bible?

Those of the religious left often claim that there is somehow strong Christian and/or biblical support for such things as a BoR. They want to imply that those who oppose such things are lacking in Christian compassion, or that they are being less than biblical.

But as mentioned, this is misleading because almost all believers agree on the general theological concerns – the need to treat each other with dignity and respect, the importance of the doctrines of being made in God’s image and being one in Christ, etc. So they all begin from such commonly-held biblical concerns, but they then differ on how this is to be teased out and expressed in the public arena.

And even the biblical data can be treated differently, depending on where one is coming from. The fact of the matter is this: the Bible speaks very little at all about rights, but it has much to say about duties, obligations and responsibilities. Our obligations to God are obviously foundational, but then we have responsibilities to others as well.

Rights talk is a quite recent invention, and comes more out of the secular Enlightenment tradition than the Judeo-Christian worldview. Sure, the Judeo-Christian worldview led to a world where human rights have emerged and flourished, and we can take great pride in this fact. But biblical Christianity never upholds autonomous rights as some end in itself, but always looks at the bigger picture of our various responsibilities and duties.

The religious left is often fond of upholding verses such as Proverbs 31:8 in their push for rights talk. The passage says this: “Speak up for people who cannot speak for themselves. Protect the rights of all who are helpless. Speak for them and be a righteous judge. Protect the rights of the poor and needy.”

But believers on the right can also equally appeal to such texts. And it is somewhat foolish to expect that such lofty biblical principles will be upheld in secular instruments like a BoR. I really don’t think an Australian BoR for example will recognise perhaps the most obvious case of protecting the innocent and defenceless: the unborn.

Nor do I think a secular BoR will do anything to look after my rights as a Christian to freely proclaim the gospel. Nor will it protect me in my belief that the biblical model of marriage and family is worth promoting and defending.

In fact, just the opposite is occurring all around the Western world: Christians are being persecuted for attempts to stand up for the unborn, for heterosexual marriage, and the institution of the family.

Also, the Christian understanding of these issues must always be predicated on the biblical data, which includes the wide-ranging effects of the fall, along with a balanced view of the state. While the state is instituted by God, it is also restricted in its role, and sits in uneasy tension with the church and the individual.

And Lord Acton’s famous dictum (“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”) is of course quite biblical in principle and needs always to be kept in mind. Extending even further powers to the state, all the while lessening the role of the church and the family (God’s primary institutions), is hardly to be applauded or considered biblical.

The truth is, the state is increasingly usurping the roles of both church and family, and a BoR will simply accelerate and perpetuate this trend. The ability of families and churches to inculcate their beliefs and values are constantly being diminished by the state, and rights talk has done nothing to stop this, only further it.

And those on the left may complain that without such thing as a BoR, the rights of minorities will be trampled by the majority. This is not a very helpful claim. All democracies are juggling acts between the rights of the majority and the rights of the minority. For the most part, minority rights are well looked after in most democracies, and a BoR has not been needed to achieve this.

As I have argued at length elsewhere, most of these minority groups today – such as the homosexual lobby – already enjoy full rights as individuals. What they are demanding is special rights – for example, as homosexual couples – something no state is under obligation to provide. When states grant special rights on things like same-sex marriage, that of necessity weakens and reduces heterosexual marriage. So rights talk is often a means by which rights are taken away from the majority, in order to satisfy activist minority groups.

Those on the left will also state that the church has a long history of involvement in the human rights debates. Yes that is true in a sense. As I mentioned, there is no question that the very concepts of human dignity, freedom and rights grew out of the Judeo-Christian worldview, but these were secondary results, more than primary intentions. It was always the primacy of the gospel that was at the forefront. The implications of the Christian gospel of course resulted in these many significant human rights improvements over the centuries.

Early Christian martyrs did not have vague and abstract concepts of human rights in mind when they were dying for their faith. They had in mind their Lord Jesus Christ and the proclamation of the gospel. That must always be our priority as well. When the Gospel is freely allowed to be proclaimed, that becomes the soil from which human rights and justice can most effectively grow and flourish.

Persecution

Another major problem with rights talk in general and Bills of Rights in particular is how they are so often used, not to provide general justice, but as a weapon with which to target Christians. Sadly many on the religious left seem ignorant of, or naive concerning, political and ideological reality. They do not seem to be very well informed about the major battles that are being fought, especially between two competing worldviews: the Judeo-Christian and the secular humanist.

As I already mentioned, rights talk is almost entirely in the domain of the secular left, and it is regularly used to promote agendas and ideologies which are often quite hostile to biblical Christianity. Indeed, under the guise of rights rhetoric, Christian freedoms have slowly but surely been eroded and whittled away.

This has taken numerous forms, but all premised on the same emphasis on rights talk. It comes in various sorts of laws: religious vilification, equally opportunity, anti-discrimination, and so on. All sound good in theory, but all tend to be used to promote activist agendas of radical minority groups, while taking away rights of the majority, especially of Christians.

Indeed, already throughout the Western world various hate crimes and hate speech laws are being passed. They all come under the rubric of human rights rhetoric of course. Thus pastors who preach from Romans 1 are being thrown into jail. Nurses who pray for their patients are being fired from their jobs. There are hundreds of examples of this occurring right now around the Western world, and it is all based on faulty and skewed notions of human rights.

And as we speak, the Victorian government is looking at removing all religious exemptions from its equal opportunity legislation. It is clear that the results will be severely damaging for the churches if this goes through.

Now am I saying there is a monolithic conspiracy to attack Christianity, and everyone who urges a BoR is part of this? Of course not. Many well-meaning people – including Christians – may well think rights talk in general and a BoR in particular are good things. But we must not be naive about the very real ideological battles which are being fought here.

The truth remains, for many activist groups, rights talk is the vehicle by which they are pushing their radical agendas, and these groups often deliberately and specifically have Christianity in their crosshairs. I believe that these things will simply get worse, and Christianity will more and more come under attack, all under the nice-sounding rubric of rights talk. And none of this will be helped if and when a federal BoR goes through.

Conclusion

Christians are divided on this issue, and that is to be expected. Christians of good faith can and will take opposing sides on this debate. Thus healthy discussion is encouraged.

But for reasons I have outlined here and elsewhere, I very strongly believe that an increase of rights legislation such as a BoR will achieve no genuine good for ordinary Australians, but will achieve a lot of good for those activist groups who most dislike the Judeo-Christian worldview, and are working overtime to see it silenced and muzzled.

For further reading

There are many titles and authors I could mention here. Let me offer just a few. Harvard Law School professor Mary Ann Glendon is important to consult. Her very significant 1970 book Rights Talk is still a classic volume on these themes. She took this general theme and applied it to the particular issues of abortion and divorce in her 1987 volume, Abortion and Divorce in Western Law. And in 1996 she penned A Nation Under Lawyers. All of her writings are worth perusing here.

Books documenting how the secular left is using rights talk to actively persecute Christians include these three volumes:
Persecution by David Limbaugh, 2003.
The Criminalization of Christianity by Janet Folger, 2005.
Speechless: Silencing the Christians by Donald Wildmon, 2009.

I have reviewed all three of these important books on my website:
billmuehlenberg.com/2006/09/13/a-review-of-persecution-by-david-limbaugh/
billmuehlenberg.com/2005/08/18/a-review-of-the-criminalization-of-christianity-by-janet-folger/
billmuehlenberg.com/2009/05/08/a-review-of-speechless-silencing-the-christians-by-donald-wildman/

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11 Replies to “Christianity and Rights Talk”

  1. Bill,

    Thank you for an excellent summary of some of the substantial issues in human rights policy.

    I want to encourage as many people as possible to make submissions to the National Human Rights Consultation. Details are at: http://www.humanrightsconsultation.gov.au/ Submissions close on 15 June 2009.

    Many of the points raised in your article could be used in a submission. Have you produced any Human Rights Consultation main points that should be covered in a submission?

    The Family Voice website (http://www.fava.org.au/) says that “so far, Fr Brennan’s consultation has received over 10,000 submissions – mostly emails via the leftwing activist group GetUp. The GetUp website gives simplistic arguments supporting a national charter of rights in a Human Rights Act.”

    If this is the case, I would urge all Christians to make submissions as soon as possible.

    Spencer Gear

  2. The reason I think that the “religious left seem ignorant of……the major battles that are being fought, especially between two competing worldviews: the Judeo-Christian and the secular humanist“, is because there really isn’t that much difference between the worldviews of the religious left and the secular humanists. Consequently the religious left tend to view the battle not in terms of Christianity versus humanism, but instead in terms of the benign secularist versus the bad fundamentalist Christian.

    Ewan McDonald.

  3. The National Human Rights Consultation are holding roundtables around WA this week including two in Perth on Tuesday so I appreciate your timely thoughts on this important subject.
    For those Christians still skeptical or unsure of yours and other’s warnings about the proposed Human Rights Charter, carefully examine this: The commission has already determined that human rights are not gained until birth. Brothers and sisters, if the fundamental human right to life can be denied by a human rights charter, what other judgments about humanity will flow from that same charter?
    Lance Macormic

  4. Part of the strategy of opponents of Christianity is to use the majority/minority situation to do two things:
    a) obscure the fact that real Christianity is in a minority position (even nominal Christianity in some countries)
    and
    b) adopt “oppressed victim” status for themselves, citing “the oppressive Christian majority” as the evil force denying them their “rights”.
    John Angelico

  5. I think you are spot on with that comment Ewan. I am not quite sure when you said ‘the religious left’ you referred to Christians with a left disposition or the Left in general and how they are religious in terms of their fervour. Either of these meanings is true unfortunately…
    Keith Jarrett

  6. Bill,
    To my mind one of the most disturbing aspects of the push for a Bill of Rights by the Federal Government is that its proponents aim to avoid a referundum and to neutralise the objection to giving judges powers which rightly belong to the Parliament.(This objection was adumbrated in your related post ‘What is Wrong with a Bill of Rights?’) They do this by proposing that a BoR should be contained in an Act of Parliament and not enshrined in the Constitution. This, they claim, means that Parliament would be able to overrule by legislation a human rights ‘interpretation’ by a court.
    This disingenuous argument is comprehensively demolished in an article by James Allan in the March 2009 edition of Quadrant Magazine, ‘The Verdict on a Bill of Rights is Already Decided’. James Allan points out that nowhere where a statutory BoR has been enacted has a Parliament enacted legislation to reverse a human rights interpretation by a court, even where such interpretation has been patently contadictory to the intention of the Act of Parliament being interpreted. This is because the court or tribunal in making its interpretation of an Act of Parliament may confer a new right and no politician wants to be accused of taking away rights. I have not read Mary Ann Glendon’s ‘A Nation under Lawyers, but the title says it all.

    Geoff Orr

  7. Bill, you say,

    “And as we speak, the Victorian government is looking at removing all religious exemptions from its equal opportunity legislation. It is clear that the results will be severely damaging for the churches if this goes through”

    I think it is a little more subtle than that. I don’t think they will touch the church itself (the Government is not going to take on those denominations, such as the Catholic Church, but also the Orthodox, Lutherans and Presbyterians, that have a male only clergy and not to forget the Muslims); the very real and great concern will be a reduction in the exception/exemption provisions so as to prevent, for instance, Christian Schools following a Christians only employment policy.

    The churches are aware of this and will do all they can to fight such moves. It is vital that our Christian Schools and parent bodies also stand up and make their voices heard.

    It is just not the right to freedom of conscience, thought and religion for religious bodies but also for those who desire such an education for their children, care in Christian Aged Care facilities, etc, etc.

    David Palmer

  8. Great article, Bill. I’ve been looking around for a proper analysis of this issue for ages and am glad to have finally found one. I’m going to pass it around to my friends.

    The deceptive thing about all this “rights talk” as you call it is that it sounds oh-so Christian. Yet in reality the clamour for “rights” is all too often the clamour of the sinful heart to live however it wishes and to pursue its own corrupt desires, in rebellion against the Creator (Romans 1). The Bible teaches, to the contrary, that we are not creatures with inherent and inalienable “rights” — much less that we are in a position to demand “rights” for ourselves — but rather we are dependent upon God for life, breath, and all else; and in our sin we have forfeited any claim we might ever have had to goodness and divine blessing.

    The Biblical ethic is not “stand up for rights”, but “love thy neighbour”. There is a world of difference between the two. The push for “rights” inevitably degenerates into one individual’s pursuit of his/her (supposed) entitlements at the expense of another’s — which is exactly what we see happening in the West, and which shall surely escalate under a BoR. “Love thy neighbour”, on the other hand, is the denial of self in favour of another.

    Alas, my feeling is that many/most Christians have the wool pulled over their eyes on this one, and we are headed for a bad outcome. May God have mercy on us!

    Jereth Kok

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