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Rhetoric, Religion, and International Human Rights: 'Save the Children!'

Posted: 22 May 2010  

Barbara Stark

Hofstra University - Maurice A. Deane School of Law

Date Written: May 21, 2010


The first information I received about the Convention on the Rights of the Child was a folded up piece of paper in my mailbox in Knoxville, Tennessee. It had not gone through the post office, but had been placed in the mailbox by one of those slow, beat-up trucks that rumbled through our subdivision, stuffing the mailboxes with ads for yard work or housework. This one was different. It told of a United Nations plot to take children away from their parents (and Jesus) and put them under the control of the State. It gave the name and number of a local Baptist Church, where loving parents like myself had begun organizing a resistance. The old truck, sent out by the local church, was faster (and more efficient, at least in Tennessee) than my internet link to the UN human rights website.

Children touch a nerve everywhere. This paper explores how a surprisingly broad range of religious groups have used the rhetoric of “save the child” to link children’s human rights with the breakdown of the family, on one hand, and fundamentalist religion and the sanctity of the family, on the other. Because of the breakdown of the family (attributable, in part, to feminism and human rights) the rhetoric goes, children are worse off. Thus, strong families, grounded in strongly held religious beliefs and supported by local religious communities, are the best hope for “saving the children.”

Human rights rhetoric, in contrast, zooms out to situate parents and children in a broader socio-political context. Most children are indeed worse off, by most indicators - economics, education, health, or drug use, to name the common culprits in the United States. Contrary to the religious rhetoric, however, divorce is more of a parallel result than a unitary cause. Thus, even though divorce rates have remained steady, children’s welfare has steadily declined. Zooming out exposes the macro causes - increasing economic polarization, slashed safety nets, globalization and the mobility of capital - which impose strains on families that fall particularly hard on the most vulnerable; including children.

Keywords: gender, children

Suggested Citation

Stark, Barbara, Rhetoric, Religion, and International Human Rights: 'Save the Children!' (May 21, 2010). Hofstra Univ. Legal Studies Research Paper No. 10-19. Available at SSRN:

Barbara Stark (Contact Author)

Hofstra University - Maurice A. Deane School of Law ( email )

121 Hofstra University
Hempstead, NY 11549
United States

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