On Privacy Rights

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: 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….

Image of The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism
The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism by Witte Jr, John (Author) Amazon logo

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.

www.humanrights.vic.gov.au/for-individuals/right-to-privacy-and-reputation/

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.

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12 Replies to “On Privacy Rights”

  1. True balance is very important law officers need to investigate crime but must follow procedures so that other inalienable rights are not violated.

    This is especially true when the crime charged is an affront to human decency. Such charges bring out passions in people but we must have a cool head and proper procedures lest we convict on emotion not fact or invent “facts” because of said emotion. Too often have we seen false convictions based on emotion or bad evidence/false confessions produced out of the angry desire not for justice but for a conviction. The satanic daycare scandals, the numerous false accusations force to be made by supposed victims by bad interviewing, and even false confessions of things that never happened by intense interrogation. When children are the believed victims we too often throw out the rule book so we can “nail the SOB” yet there are plenty of time we nail an innocent person.

    Anyone given unchecked power WILL abuse it. That is why rules and procedures exist. That is why is most circumstances privacy exists to protect innocent people. We can’t say well if we can snoop on everyone we will catch criminals. But who else will we catch?? What if your having spoken out against government abuses find yourself now being investigated for something planted on your phone or in your mail or house???

    The big one is if it saves one life or if it saves one child but at what cost?? If we save one but run 10 or 100 is that acceptable?? We used to say I would rather 1000 guilty men go free than 1 innocent man go to jail. Now it is becoming I would rather 1000 ( or more) innocent men go to jail than one guilty man go free.

    We are often scared into letting go of our rights sometimes we trust the people we are letting take them, like the PATRIOT act in the USA, but never stop to think can we trust others with the same power???? Or we know several cops and trust them explicitly yet we don’t know ALL cops could there be a few we can’t trust?? We might know people who work at Apple and know they would not do anything unsavory to us but what’s of others there.

    Blind trust in any agency, governmental or private, is folly but equally folly is blind distance trust. Trust but verify. Transparency is best in any investigation in any agency for misdeeds are done in the shadows in darkness and only with light can we ensure fairness.

    Too often, not always, those who say if you’ve got nothing to hide balk at THEIR privacy being violated.

    You have to right to your own thoughts and your own expression of thoughts provided they hurt no-one you do NOT have the right to commit a crime nor the right to cover it up.

  2. Bill, I am surprised you did not quote Jesus beatitude of “Blessed are the Peacemakers”, in respect of the privacy issue. Surely if someone interferes with or breaches you privacy, belittles or damages your reputation, they violate your peace? The scriptural cost of doing so in not inheriting the Kingdom of Heaven, is definitely a lot more severe than anything a worldly court or statute might apply or infer as suitable punishment.

  3. Fairly obviously the bible speaks of the right to not have our nakedness uncovered.

    One thing, however, is that we have no right to privacy from God, as that is impossible, and the scriptures also speak of us being surrounded by a host of witnesses and nothing that is spoken in secret will not be broadcast aloud. If we think our dirty little secrets will be kept secret we are in for a shock.

  4. Michael’s post brings to mind a somewhat humorous concern I have about The Rapture. If I’m among the fortunate ones, as I hope to be, the stories about our clothes being left behind worry me. I wouldn’t be concerned if I was 25 and beautiful again, but I’m 85 with lots of saggy bits. I really don’t want to face the Lord in this sad state. Can anyone reassure me somehow?

    And that brings up another thorny theological question. In heaven are we the age we were when we departed this earth?

  5. Thanks Doreen. As to your first paragraph, it depends on whether one believes in the rapture. Some Christians do and some do not. And if we go by biblical resurrection appearances, the concern about nakedness does not seem to be an issue. When Jesus came back from the dead it would appear that he was clothed. We can only speculate on some of these matters however.

    The same with your second paragraph. Jesus seems to have been the same age when he came back, but Scripture does not tell us all that much about this matter. In one way or another it seems we will be recognisable to others in the next life, but how exactly, and at what age, remains unclear.

  6. Well Doreen Mcgrath as a believer in the rapture I think we would be youthful in appearance though how youth full I don’t know I looked better at 18 then I don’t now at nearly 44 but some at 44 still looked incredible. Children I think would stay children with infants and the aborted/miscarried being randomly aged to different parts of childhood at God’s discretion. I don’t think we’d all appear the same age but all youthful. Probably anywhere from 18 – 30 or so for adults, pure speculation, but no older than you have achieved (someone raptured at 22 would not appear older but could possibly be younger).

  7. Thanks Paul. Well, you are right about the “pure speculation” bit! Given the paucity of biblical data on such matters, it may be wisest just to resist the temptation to fill in all the blanks. Instead, it might be best to simply say, ‘Well, we just do not know for sure; we are not told very much about these matters in the Bible – so your guess is as good as mine!’

    And given that this post is not about eschatology, I will save your further remarks on that subject for another time!

  8. Agreed, end times speculation is for another time, so to speak. Unfortunately the subject is of critical importance to the very meaning of life, yet we know so little with any certainty and there are so many different interpretations and opinions that it’s hard to know what to think. What is heaven? Why is there a distinction in eschatology between the past dead and the future saved, who apparently retain a human body?

    It’s a real sticking point for my non-Christian friends who ask why I believe in an afterlife when I can’t provide any evidence that we survive death. A question I was asked recently was at what point in human evolution did humans acquire souls. As an evolutionary biologist specialising in consciousness I struggle with this question myself since the evidence shows a continuity rather than a defined break. If it’s DNA related which part of the genome is determinant given we are so closely related to other primates?

    So many questions. I respect your scholarship Bill but I’m sure you also must struggle with these conundrums.

  9. Thank Troy, but with a number of important and weighty questions being raised here, a short reply in a comment would not be all that worthwhile. A whole article would be needed to do justice to the issues you raise. Assuming you are not asking rhetorical questions here, but mean what you say, they require more than a few brief paragraphs. So I will respond with an article which will be up soon. I will let you know when it appears, thanks.

  10. One of the biggest threats to privacy is the “public’s right to know”. When applied to many aspects of government this is fine HOWEVER when applied to citizens this is a DANGEROUS philosophy indeed! It is why when someone is merry charged with a crime we get there info and the juicy tidbits about the crime yet the odd part is if they are found not guilty it only warrants a blurb in the paper or news and even then they sometimes will word it so instead of being not guilty you are guilty but the jury just couldn’t convict. The version of the public’s right to know destroys reputations and life’s all in the name of ratings in the name of breaking the big story first. Yet the same reporters would balk at you doing the same to them. After all THEY have privacy rights!

    This “public’s right to know” will almost certainly come into play soon with so many refusing the jab. They will publicize or names and addresses because the public has the right to know who we are and where we are to avoid us (or more likely hurt/kill us). We saw similar with prop 8 in California donors being harassed vandalized etc when there names were released. Too often the right to know is about the right to destroy.

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