Revolution in the Air

There is a revolution brewing at the U.S. State Department. If realized to its full potential it will usher in an era of sanity, reorienting international juridical, social, and political norms. It is driven by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who hosted the Second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington on July 16-18.  

Not content with the status quo, Pompeo is driving a movement to restore legitimacy to the international human rights agenda. On July 8, 2019 he announced the creation of a Commission on Unalienable Rights.   Chaired by Professor Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, the Commission promises a genuine examination of what it means to claim something as a “human right.”  

It is a long overdue mission. Earlier this year Princeton University’s Robert George addressed the Institute for Human Ecology at its commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He identified a serious problem undermining the credibility of the international human rights movement. “People will try to win at ideological battles … with the language of human rights. So they’ll inflate claims, whatever they desire, and treat it not as a desire, a want, a feeling, a passion, but a human right.” Examples of the cheapening of the “human rights” lexicon are nowhere more prominent than in the rapidly advancing claims of gender ideology. “We lose our sense of the power and importance of the fundamental rights because of the inflation that happens when you conflate whatever it is you desire, whatever is on your agenda, with rights,” said George. 

The Commission will focus part of its inquiry on the nature of unalienable rights – rights that flow from nature of the embodied person rather than political majorities, clever propaganda, or financial deep pockets. The commission should focus on the principles enshrined in the founding document of the Nation, which recognizes the self-evident truth that all “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The prospect of such an inquiry has enraged the cultural libertines and their political allies. The reason is simple. “Unalienable” suggests intrinsic, and that suggests an objective foundation for human rights, one that flows from the nature of the human person. It has a long and honorable pedigree. It is nothing less than a bold and overdue resourcement of the great inquiry undertaken by the ancient Greeks that traverses the history of western civilization. Secretary Pompeo gets it:

“It’s a sad commentary on our times that more than seventy years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, gross violations continue throughout the world, sometimes even in the name of human rights. International institutions designed and built to protect human rights have drifted from their original mission. As human rights claims have proliferated, some claims have come into tension with one another, provoking questions and clashes about which rights are entitled to gain respect. 

I hope that the Commission will revisit the most basic of questions: What does it mean to say or claim that something is, in fact, a human right? How do we know or how do we determine whether that claim that this or that is a human right, is it true, and therefore, ought it to be honored? How can there be human rights, rights we possess not as privileges we are granted or even earn, but simply by virtue of our humanity belong to us? Is it, in fact, true, as our Declaration of Independence asserts, that as human beings, we – all of us, every member of our human family – are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights?”

The chorus of opposition to the commission is eloquent witness to its significance. Hostile objection has been raised by the National Council of Churches, Catholics for Choice, American Atheists, Freedom From Religion Foundation, America Magazine, and various presidential candidates including Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren. 

They fear, with reason, an honest intellectual challenge critically examining the masquerade they label as “human rights”: abortion, same-sex marriage, and an avalanche of sexual and gender identity claims. At stake is the unalienable right to the free exercise of religion. Only by subjecting religious rights to a secondary status may the radical social engineers dismantle the natural family. Witness the efforts to destroy artist, expert baker, and devout Christian Jack Phillips and Masterpiece Cakeshop by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Persecuted for his refusal to endorse same-sex marriage through his artistic talents, Phillips endured years of government animus. The United States Supreme Court was compelled to slap down the bigoted commission for its “clear and impermissible hostility toward [Jack’s] sincere religious beliefs.” That is but one of the clashes resounding across the nation and the planet as the vocabulary of “human rights” is appropriated by a personal preference agenda that has more to do with feelings and untethered desires than with the nature of the human person.  

Thank you Secretary Pompeo.