The National Human Rights Consultation recently handed in its report to the Government on Australian attitudes to the concept of a Human Rights Charter. After months of consultation with individuals and community groups, it has emerged that Christians are among the most keenly interested in the question—both for and against.
On the one side, we have the well-respected—and well-connected—Australian Christian Lobby campaigning against the implementation of a charter. Along with many other Christian groups, ACL has three basic criticisms. First, the concept of a rights-based ethic has the potential to promote selfishness as people demand their place rather than contemplate their responsibilities.
Secondly, there is a simple political argument that a charter will hand too much power to an unelected and unaccountable judiciary, the final interpreter of any such charter, rather than to duly elected legislators. Plenty of people have been worried about this, including the former Premier of New South Wales Bob Carr who has been invited to present his views at Christian conferences.
The third—and most often cited—argument for Christians is the potential loss of religious freedoms that may result from a human rights charter. Currently, religious organizations enjoy certain exemptions from, for example, employment law. A Christian school can choose to overlook non-Christian candidates for teaching positions. Churches can refuse to hire someone whose lifestyle is inconsistent with biblical teachings. The fear is, these religious freedoms could potentially be negated by non-Christians who use a human rights charter to demand their ‘right’ to work for any school or church.
the concept of inherent human rights is almost certainly a Judeo-Christian gift to the Western world
On the other side, we find what might be called left-leaning Christian groups, such as the newly formed IsaiahOne.com, an online collective established to support the Charter. These groups insist that individual rights are about protecting human dignity for all. In a cohesive society, individuals, especially weaker ones, should never be sacrificed for the greater good. IsaiahOne.com takes its name from the opening chapter of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah which is replete with calls for society to protect the poor and powerless among them.
On the political question, these Christian groups insist that a charter will provide no further power to the judiciary. After all, it is not the judiciary that will craft the human rights charter but politicians in consultation with the community. And, as for the all-important question of religious freedom, left-leaning Christians insist there will be no diminution of a church’s right to employ whomever it wishes. It will be business as usual, they say. IsaiahOne.com insists, “Human Rights has a strong tradition of protecting religious freedom.”
In our view, there is no specifically Christian answer to the question of whether Australia should adopt a charter of human rights. Opinions tend to fall along the left-right divide. That said, there are some Christian principles that should inform the churches as they think about human rights.
First, the concept of inherent human rights is almost certainly a Judeo-Christian gift to the Western world. We know secularists like to claim credit for inventing the idea. They tell the story of Enlightenment Europe breaking away from the smothering omnipotence of repressive religion and forging a brave new world of ethical freedoms and responsibilities free from biblical themes and backing. The narrative is simple but false, as Yale philosopher Professor Nicholas Wolterstorff has recently shown in his book Justice: Rights and Wrongs.
Far from being an Enlightenment invention, the language of inherent rights belonging to the weak and poor comes from 13th-century canon law as the medieval church sought to apply the teachings of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus and the early church fathers to the circumstances of poverty and justice throughout Europe at the time. It is no accident that the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads like an exposition of the 8th-century bc writings of Isaiah and Amos and the first century teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. The statements of the Declaration seem ‘self-evident’ only because of centuries of Judeo-Christianization in the West.
The argument here is not that Christians are better than non-Christians or that the church has a monopoly on ethical wisdom; we all know of the crimes Christians have committed through the centuries. The point is simply that Christians should have nothing to fear from the modern discussion of human rights. Although there is no longer any reference to God—as is appropriate in a secular nation—a lot of rights talk emerges from thoroughly biblical concepts.
The principle of self-sacrifice should take precedence over self-interest. Christians ought to reject the desire to legislate Christian morals
But what of the claim (and counter-claim) about the effect of a human rights charter on religious freedom? Since the pursuit of the common good usually involves competition between rights, the Christian stance is to support the rights of the least privileged and most disadvantaged over those of the most privileged and least disadvantaged. Church folk in the West rarely fall into the former category. We also believe that the possible abuse of an instrument of rights is not a sufficient argument to oppose such an instrument.
This leads to a more fundamental Christian principle that must be considered: self-sacrifice. Australian society may well choose to enshrine particular rights that are inconsistent with historic Christianity—gay ‘marriage’ rights, for example—but why should that discourage Christians from supporting the broader project of protecting the rights of the vulnerable? The principle of self-sacrifice should take precedence over self-interest. Christians ought to reject the desire to legislate Christian morals. In a secular society, the duties of the Christian community are to persuade others of biblical truth and serve others in Christ’s name, not to impose its viewpoint on the nation.
In a sense, Christians have no rights. Even if the freedoms currently enjoyed by churches were to be curtailed, this would not be a sufficient reason to oppose a charter. Christians follow the crucified Jesus; he epitomizes giving up rights for the good of others. Christianity certainly does not need political or legislative power to achieve its aims. In the first three centuries of Christian history, right up until the time of Emperor Constantine, believers had no power, no sway over laws, and yet they thrived, winning countless thousands of individuals throughout the empire to the way of Christ.
We have no view on the specific question of a Charter of Rights. But we are clear on this: Christians ought to be willing to surrender their rights for the good of others, in particular the poor, oppressed, weak and socially excluded. Let that, not self-protectiveness or fear, drive the debate.
Dr John Dickson and Dr Greg Clarke are Directors of the Centre for Public Christianity.