I have been challenged by other Christian brothers to cautiously receive what respected Christian leaders say about politics and not jump to hasty, fear-filled, simplistic conclusions in a reactionary manner. With this admonition in mind, I felt compelled to read through the aforementioned speech on human rights by Hillary Clinton and evaluate her use of freedom of worship and human rights in the context of the speech (see http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2009a/12/133544.htm for a full transcript).
What strikes me immediately about this speech (and I am sure this is common in human rights speeches) is the presupposition that human rights are not the product of a particular culture but are universal rights. For instance, the Secretary states that “our basic values, the ones enshrined in our Declaration of Independence – the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – are not only the source of our strength and endurance; they are the birthright of every woman, man, and child on earth.” She then proceeds to refer to a document called the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” adopted by the U.N. in 1948. If human rights are truly “universal,” then they must have a transcendent basis and not depend on the dictates of human authority. Indeed this Declaration did not confer rights on all people, rather it, as Clinton notes, “affirmed the universality of human rights.” In other words, it acknowledged that human rights are natural rights, or what Jefferson called “inalienable rights” (‘inalienable’ means “not transferable to another or capable of being repudiated”).
The concept of natural rights is rooted in the theory of natural law. Natural law does not refer to the laws of physics that govern nature, but to, as Thomas Aquinas articulated, “the ‘natural light of reason,’ by which we discern what is right and wrong.” In other words, natural law differentiates right from wrong based on the foundation of eternal, objective moral law. C.S. Lewis explains natural law in The Abolition of Man, “For all laws derive from the eternal law to the extent that they share in the right reason and right reason is only right if it participates in ‘Eternal Reason.'” The concept of natural law is consistent with the biblical doctrine that God has made His moral requirements known to all men. The apostle Paul, writing about people who have never heard of Moses and the Ten Commandments, says, “the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them” (Romans 2:15). A key tenet of natural law is the belief in the intrinsic worth and dignity of all people, which is fundamental to the belief in universal human rights.
In contrast to the theory of natural law is the theory of positive law. Positive law rejects the concept of a transcendent moral law accessible to all and advocates that the only binding laws on humanity are laws imposed by human government. Therefore laws are temporal, being based merely on temporal reason, and are not subject to any transcendent norms. A positive law framework sees human rights as contingent on human governments: rights are not inalienable but conferred by the state on its citizens. And if rights are given by the state, the state certainly has the authority to take them away.
This analysis reveals a fundamental contradiction in popular thinking on human rights. On the one hand, politicians, academicians, and media magnates advocate for universal human rights; but on the other hand, these same voices reject the belief in universal and objective values. They argue for the dignity and freedom of the individual without having an objective, unchanging basis for these beliefs.
Perhaps one reason why the natural law foundation for human rights is consistently rejected is that removing the constraints of natural law allow people to concoct new rights that are not inalienable and therefore not based on eternal law. The idea of universal human rights, though, is still advocated to give weight to these contrived rights. Clinton mentions one such “right” in this same speech: “[People] must be free to worship, associate, and love in the way they choose.” Not only is the freedom of religion subtly redefined to freedom of worship, but another right, one that is plainly not in our Bill of Rights and one that has never been regarded as a natural right – the right to sexual freedom. The rhetoric used by advocates of homosexual rights is identical to the rhetoric used by civil rights advocates (some insightful African-American thinkers have rightly taken offense that homosexuals would equate their cause to the struggle against racial injustice). They appeal to the 14th Amendment (the equal protection clause) and use the language of inalienable rights to justify their pursuit of equal recognition and protection under the law. What is fundamentally at stake in this struggle, though, is not the normalizing of homosexual relationships, but the moral nature of sexuality and sexual behavior. Are there objective moral laws that govern sexual appetites (i.e. orientations) or not? Natural law has always advocated that there are, and every major world religion has a moral code of sexual behavior. But this idea is being challenged in academia, the media, and the courts.
In my next post on this topic, I will explore the relationship between rights and moral obligation to argue why the freedom to “love in the way they choose” cannot be a valid natural right, but is merely a relatively new invention of our culture and therefore dependent on the laws of government not on universal moral law.