News Release: Law, Religion and Ethics

Mar. 14,  2011

New Books, Translations Highlight Religion's Role in Democratic Revolutions

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As human rights and democratic revolutions sweep across the Arab world, four new books from Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR) offer important lessons about the role of religion in establishing and stabilizing democratic rule, particularly during the violent upheavals of the last 30 years.

“Christianity and Human Rights: An Introduction” (John Witte, Jr. and Frank S. Alexander, eds., Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Twenty leading scholars explain Christianity’s contribution to the development of basic human rights in the West.

“We have seen the best of human rights protections inscribed on the books, but some of the worst human rights violations inflicted on the ground,” writes Witte, CSLR director, Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law and Alonzo L. McDonald Family Foundation Distinguished Professor, in the book’s introduction.

This paradox makes it clear that human rights norms need a human rights culture to be effective, and it is in this context that religion is critical. “Religions inevitably help to define the meanings and measures of shame and regret, restraint and respect, responsibility and restitution that a human rights regime presupposes,” he explains.

“Human rights are, in no small part, the modern political fruits of ancient religious beliefs and practices – ancient Jewish constructions of covenant and ‘mitzvot,’ classic Christian concepts if ‘ius’ and ‘libertas,’ freedom and convent, and more,” Witte continues.

A companion to “Christianity and Law: An Introduction” (Cambridge University Press, 2008), the book explores legal, theological, philosophical and historical perspectives, and it considers Christianity’s role in the rights claims of women and children, the poor and the needy, prisoners and enemies, and nature and the environment.

The first cluster of chapters analyzes the foundation of rights talk in the first millennium and the gradual development of rights ideas within Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox traditions. The second addresses the modern human rights issues that are critically important today for Christians and other people of faith.

In a poignant foreword, Anglican Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu explains why to be human is to be free:

“The life of every human person is inviolable as a gift from God. And since this person is created in the image of God and is a God carrier…we should not just respect such a person but …have a deep reverence for that person,” he writes. “Even God who alone in all the universe has the perfect right to be a totalitarian, has such a profound reverence for our freedom that He had much rather we went freely to hell than compel us to go to heaven.” 

Among the other contributors: Robert Bellah (University of California at Berkeley), Don Browning (University of Chicago), Kent Greenawalt (Columbia University), David Novak (University of Toronto),  Jeremy Waldron (New York University/Oxford University) and Nicholas P. Wolterstorff (Yale), each of whom presented preliminary versions of their chapters at CSLR’s silver anniversary conference.

The book was funded by grants from the McDonald Agape Foundation and the Henry Luce Foundation.

“Fides et Libertas: Religion, Human Rights and Religious Freedom Symposium Issue” (International Religious Liberty Association, 2010)

This journal features excerpts from the best essays on religion and human rights and religious freedom commissioned by CSLR research projects over the past few years. 

Scheduled to appear in several languages over the next year, this special issue was produced by the International Religious Liberty Association, a major human rights NGO with headquarters in Bern, Switzerland, and Washington, D.C. It was funded in part by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation and is an outcome of the CSLR’s Law, Religion and Human Rights Project.

Included in the issue are essays by Carolyn Evans (University of Melbourne), Douglas Laycock, (University of Virginia), David Little (Harvard University), and CSLR Senior Fellows Richard W. Garnett (University of Notre Dame), T. Jeremy Gunn (Al Akhawayn University, Morocco), and Johan D. van der Vyver (Emory University).

“Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment” (John Witte, Jr., Westview Press, 2000; Sanlain Press Beijing, 2011)

“The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism” (John Witte, Jr., Cambridge University Press, 2007, China Legal Publishing House, 2011)

Two of Witte’s groundbreaking volumes detailing the influence of religion on the development of Western human rights have been published in Chinese.

“Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment” provides a comprehensive, multidisciplinary overview of the history, theory, law, and comparative analysis of American religious liberty from the earliest colonial period through recent Supreme Court cases.

“The Reformation of Rights” explains how a number of basic Western laws on religious and political rights, social and confessional pluralism, federalism and constitutionalism, and more owe a great deal to the religious movement sparked by the teachings of John Calvin.

In both books, Witte has sought to untangle the deep theological, cultural, political, and philosophical roots of Western theories of human rights and religious freedom, and to map the twisted and sometimes tortured routes of rights development in the West.  He has also sought to show how Western formulations of these fundamental rights are only one formulation of these universal human goods and gifts that other religions and cultures will discern and implement in different ways.

Says Witte, “Democratic reformers in the Arab world can learn a great deal from the revolutions of other nations, particularly that human rights norms require human rights cultures to be effective, and these must be carefully built over time, not overnight.”

Interviews with Witte on these topics:

Witte Discusses Religion, State, Human Rights (CSLR news, March 8, 2011)

John Witte, Jr. on human rights language in today's globalized world  (YouTube, Jan. 12, 2009)

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