Does the Bible support privacy rights?
A little while ago someone came to my site asking me this: What is the biblical basis for the right to privacy? The comment came in because of an article I had written about the growing surveillance state that is found not just in Communist countries, but in the ‘free and democratic’ West as well.
Privacy concerns were just some of the things I discussed in the piece, and I tried to make the case that the erosion of our basic freedoms and human rights is something we all should be greatly worried about: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2021/08/07/surveillance-culture-a-double-edged-sword/
Because this question deserves to be properly answered – and at some length – that is the reason for this particular article. While the question is legitimate, it also in a sense can be an unhelpful way to raise the question if I may say so. That is because it might assume the notion that unless the Bible clearly supports something, we cannot support it, and unless the Bible clearly condemns something, we cannot condemn it. (Whether or not my questioner had this assumption in mind is not fully clear.)
Either way, this is not an ideal hermeneutical principle to run with. Arguing from silence is seldom useful. The Apostle Paul for example never seems to have directly mentioned the virgin birth of Christ. Does that mean he did not believe in it? Hardly.
And all sorts of other things of course are not directly mentioned in Scripture. Is internet pornography OK because the Bible never condemns it? Should Christians have nothing to do with smartphones or train rides or basketball games because the Bible is silent about such matters?
What we are to do as Christians who rightly interpret Scripture is to use general principles found therein to help us assess things not directly discussed. So on the issue of internet porn, while the Bible nowhere mentions it, we can nonetheless take general principles about God’s intentions for human sexuality, and what the Scripture says about lust and improper sexual desire, and so on, and apply it here.
It is the same with my original question. While privacy rights as such are not directly spoken about in the Bible, it seems that some general principles at least can be appealed to. For example, the idea that we are all made in God’s image, and that all people should be treated with dignity and respect can be discussed.
Things like property rights, which Scripture affirms, can also be mentioned. As such, it would be foolish to say that God cares nothing about privacy rights. He cares deeply about the well-being of all people, and modern talk of rights – including privacy rights – can be raised here in this regard.
So two extremes on this must be avoided. Christians cannot say privacy rights are absolute, trumping every other concern. But they also cannot say that the right to privacy does not matter in the least, and we should just run rough shod over such rights.
Bear in mind that rights talk as a whole is a fairly modern concept. The biblical view is that rights have corresponding responsibilities. So demanding a never-ending stream of ‘rights’ is not the way to go for the believer, but neither is the idea that various rights do not exist, or we should not take them seriously.
Thus believers can rightly speak about such things as the right to life, based on plenty of biblical passages about this matter, including the Sixth Commandment. While a right to privacy may be less straightforward from the biblical data, I think a case can still be made for it.
With all that in mind, we can now look at various contemporary documents on the right to privacy. They come in the form of various human rights charters and declarations. And a case can be made that even these secular charters and declarations have in very good measure a solid biblical basis.
While many of these modern documents may not say so, the idea of mankind as being made in God’s image leads directly to talk about human rights and the like. It is ultimately the Judeo-Christian worldview that provides us with a firm foundation for even talking about human rights.
Before looking at some of these modern documents, let me offer just one quote about what I have just been speaking about. Many volumes could be offered here, but I will feature the important work by John Witte, The Reformation of Rights (Cambridge, 2007).
The subtitle tells us where he is coming from: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism. Let me quote from the book’s Introduction. This volume, he writes,
shows how Calvin and his followers developed a distinct theology and jurisprudence of human rights and gradually cast these rights teachings into enduring institutional and constitutional forms in early modern Europe and America. The first and most essential rights for early modern Calvinists were religious rights – the rights of the individual believer to enjoy liberty of conscience and free exercise of religion, and the rights of the religious group to enjoy freedom of worship and autonomy of governance. Already in Calvin’s day, the reformers discovered that proper protection of religious rights required protection of several correlative rights as well, particularly as Calvinists found themselves repressed and persecuted as minorities. The rights of the individual to religious conscience and exercise required attendant rights to assemble, speak, worship, evangelize, educate, parent, travel, and more on the basis of their beliefs. The rights of the religious group to worship and govern itself as an ecclesiastical polity required attendant rights to legal personality, corporate property, collective worship, organized charity, parochial education, freedom of press, freedom of contract, freedom of association, and more. For early modern Calvinists, religious rights thus became, in Georg Jellinek’s words, the “mother” of many other human rights.
Religious rights also became the “midwife” of many constitutional laws in the early modern period. Calvinists discovered through hard experience that religious and other human rights have little salience in societies that lack basic constitutional structures and procedures that give them meaning and measure. Human rights have little value for parties who lack basic rights to security, succor, and sanctuary. Human rights have little pertinence for victims who lack legal standing in courts or procedural rights to pursue apt remedies against political officials or fellow citizens who have abused their rights. Human rights have little cogency in communities that lack the ethos and ethic to render rights violations a source of shame and regret, restraint and respect. And so, over time, early modern Calvinists worked with others slowly to develop a human rights culture and a set of constitutional structures dedicated to the rule of law and to the protection of the essential rights and liberties of all peaceable believers.
Calvinists took the lead in producing a number of landmark constitutional documents that gradually expanded the Western regime of human rights in the early modern period….
With that Christian background in place, let me finish by mentioning a few of these contemporary charters. As can be seen, these various international documents tend to use similar wording to express this right to privacy. For example, Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it this way:
“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”
And Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says this:
“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”
Here in Victoria this is covered as follows:
Right to privacy and reputation
Section 13 of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities (the Charter) protects your right not to have your privacy, family, home or correspondence interfered with. It also gives you the right to not have your reputation unlawfully attacked. The Charter applies to public authorities in Victoria, such as state and local government departments and agencies, and people delivering services on behalf of the government.
How does the law protect me?
Every person has a right to enjoy their private life free from interference.
Under the Charter, you have a right to not have your privacy, family life, home or correspondence, such as mail or email, interfered with. This right applies to surveillance such as closed-circuit television, collection of personal information by public authorities, results of medical tests or examinations and other confidential matters. The right covers extended family and other types of family arrangements, such as foster care or legal guardians.
These are valuable rights indeed. A right to privacy, while perhaps not directly found in the Bible, is certainly a hallmark of most if not all modern democratic nations. And as I tried to show, such concerns for human rights and civil liberties can be traced directly back to the Judeo-Christian worldview.
In sum: yes, I think we can appeal to Scripture when speaking of things like privacy rights. Again, as with most rights, they are not always to be seen as absolute; and they must also be balanced with other rights – sometimes even with competing rights.