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A Dickensian Era of Religious Rights: An Update on Religious Human Rights in Global Perspective


John Witte Jr.


Emory University School of Law

2001

William & Mary Law Review, Vol. 42, p. 707, 2001

Abstract:     
The last two decades have been a Dickensian era, showcasing the best and worst of human rights. The modern human rights revolution has helped catalyze new religious awakenings, and religious rights have therefore been substantially expanded. On the other hand, the revolution has catalyzed new conflict. A theological and legal war for souls has broken out between indigenous and foreign religious groups. These events have exposed the limitations of the human rights paradigm standing alone. Rights norms need a rights culture to be effective. Religion is indispensable and ineradicable, and religious narratives ground human rights discussions. However, religious narratives also need human rights to protect and challenge them.

Religion must play an active role in the modern human rights revolution. This is not an obvious claim, as most religious texts do not speak of rights and liberties. Human rights evolved in the 1940s, when Christianity and Enlightenment ideals seemed at a low. Human rights grew rapidly through international covenants, creating a new civic faith, and religion seemed to be losing. However, such an understanding distorts the human rights discussion. Religion is the root of many human rights. Without religion, human rights become infinitely expandable, but also become captive to Western rituals and ignore the Eastern holistic approach. Furthermore, the state is given an exaggerated role as guarantor of human rights. Thus, the need exists to transform religion from a midwife of human rights into a mother of human rights.

Human rights must have a more prominent place in theological discourse of modern religion. Theology must be a patron of human rights to promote discourse. Many religious traditions historically began this process. The Catholic Church inspired the first great human rights movement and based its canon law on individual and corporate rights. The Protestant Reformation was the second great human rights movement by encouraging the freedom of the Christian and promoting the role of the individual within religion. The Orthodox tradition based rights on the integrity of natural law and human community. However, all of these traditions have grown silent on the issue of human rights, due to intolerance, apathy, or hardship.

As religion becomes a larger part of human rights, limits need to be set on the religious rights regime. A broad definition of religion is needed to include legitimate claims without making every claim religious. The issues of conversion and proselytism also need to be settled, as the community’s right to be left alone can conflict with the liberty for individuals to choose their faith. Finally, the question of what role a state should play in religion, separate or cooperative, must be considered and balanced in all instances to promote the religious rights movement.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 33

Keywords: Dickens, Human Rights, Religious Rights, Conflict, Human Rights, Revolution

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Date posted: June 3, 2011  

Suggested Citation

Witte, John, A Dickensian Era of Religious Rights: An Update on Religious Human Rights in Global Perspective (2001). William & Mary Law Review, Vol. 42, p. 707, 2001. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1797861

Contact Information

John Witte Jr. (Contact Author)
Emory University School of Law ( email )
1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States
404-727-6980 (Phone)
404-712-8605 (Fax)
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