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Law, Religion, and Human Rights

John Witte Jr.

Emory University School of Law


Columbia Human Rights Law Review, Vol. 28, p. 1, Fall 1996

Society is facing a paradoxical crisis: democratic metamorphosis versus the destruction of local and world order. This article argues that any solution to this world crisis must be grounded in a global regime of law and human rights. This concept is not a panacea; rather, it is necessary to the solution of this crisis. Religion can be a difficult ally to engage, but it is an indispensable aspect of human life. All laws have religious sources, and the modern movement for human rights law has impoverished itself by neglecting rights and roles of religion. Religious ideas and institutions need to be drawn into a healthy regime of law.

Law and religion are two interrelated dimensions of human living. As such, nations must move beyond Western positivist views of law. Law is more than a body of rules and regulations designed to govern society, just as religious ideas and institutions are more than a body of doctrines and exercises designed to guide private conscience. These definitions are too narrow; both have broader aims.

The spheres of law and religion have converged and contradicted each other. The two spheres are conceptually, methodologically, institutionally, and professionally related. Law gives religious communities structure, while religion gives legal communities their spirit. Religion must be included within the legal regime of human rights. To achieve this, the church must transform itself from a “midwife” to a “mother” of human rights.

This can be achieved through confession of past rights abuses and openness to a new human rights hermeneutic. The Catholic faith led to the first great human rights movement through the introduction of medieval canon law. The Protestant tradition helped to develop refined human rights theories. The Orthodox tradition based its human rights theory on the integrity of natural law. Today, these churches sit on the sidelines of the human rights debate due to past abuses, intellectual stagnation, and post-socialist reconstruction, respectively. For religious human rights to be reformed, these institutions must reenter the intellectual discussion and help foster a worldwide community of human rights.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 17

Keywords: law, human rights, international

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Date posted: June 3, 2011  

Suggested Citation

Witte, John, Law, Religion, and Human Rights (1996). Columbia Human Rights Law Review, Vol. 28, p. 1, Fall 1996. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1851137

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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