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“I am pleased to invite a guest contributor to this space, my friend and colleague, and IFYC’s Senior Vice President, Tony Banout. Tony is a close partner of mine in thinking about the complicated terrain of religious diversity in America. With a doctorate from UChicago’s Divinity School, he is a philosophically astute commentator, and a wonderful writer. He’ll be blogging a bit over the summer, while I focus my own writing on a forthcoming book. You’ll likely hear from Tony over the course of the academic year as well. I trust you’ll enjoy reading him as much as I do.”
On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the formation of a new commission titled with an intentional echo of the U.S. Declaration of Independence: The Commission on Unalienable Rights. That echo is quite purposeful, as the commission was formed as an advisory board to the State Department with the expressed mission “to ground our discussion of human rights in America’s founding principles.”
As an advisory board to the State Department it’s not apparent how much practical power the commission will have. To state the obvious, there is a rather robust, internationally sanctioned human rights structure that emerged at the tail end of World War II. The creation of United Nations is the apex of that structure. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which the UN adopted in 1948 after two years of deliberation) was seen as the road map “to guarantee the rights of every individual everywhere.”
I’m a firm believer for lofty ambitions and big vision – as even my realist Niebuhrian friends have put it, you have to dream the impossible to maximize the possible. At the same time, it doesn’t take much to notice that the last 70 years of human history have failed to “guarantee the rights of every individual everywhere,” and that’s with the force of international law behind the effort. So, on one reading, it’s at the very least questionable whether the State Department commission will have much of an effect. What seems likely – given the composition of the commission – is that it will reflect the partisan positions of the current administration, and as such will attempt to provide some intellectual foundations to guide the administration’s State Department stance vis-à-vis human rights.
As for the composition, the commission is comprised of intellectual heavyweights and it’s interestingly interfaith. It is also curiously weighted with members that take a totalistic anti-abortion stance and have denied LGBT rights. The commission is headed by Harvard Law Professor (and Pompeo’s mentor) Mary Ann Glendon. To note a few interfaith dynamics: Glendon is an active Catholic, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf is a Sunni Muslim and co-founder of Zaytuna College, Peter Berkowitz is Jewish and serves as a Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.
If you haven’t already read about the controversies here, you’ve probably avoided the news this week (and are perhaps the better for it!). A quick search will yield denunciations from the left, plaudits from the right, and sadly not much in between. I’m not writing primarily to denounce or to praise, but to point out some things that have been overlooked and that complicate how we think about interfaith work. For what it’s worth, my own view is that the commission will be a passing flashpoint in the ongoing debates on sexual ethics, gender, abortion and women’s rights, but in the end actually do very little of practical import.
Back to the complicated interfaith dynamics. In announcing its formation, Pompeo claimed the commission is basing its approach on “natural law and natural rights.” That language is derivative of Thomas Aquinas’ theology, and a way of approaching human rights thought embedded within the Catholic tradition. There’s nothing wrong individuals taking a position that is rooted in a particular tradition of course. But when a public commission representing the diverse body politic that we are grounds its work in a particular school of thought, how does such an approach account for the diversity of religious views on the topic of human rights? Doesn’t it restrict the range of philosophical inquiry into the underpinnings of human rights to situate it within one tradition and mode of thought?
I can’t help but think that humanity actually did a better job of full interfaith reckoning on the thorny questions packed into human rights in 1947. From Eleanor Roosevelt’s memoir, recalling the first meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission:
Dr. Chang was a pluralist and held forth in charming fashion on the proposition that there is more than one kind of ultimate reality. The Declaration, he said, should reflect more than simply Western ideas and Dr. Humphrey would have to be eclectic in his approach. His remark, though addressed to Dr. Humphrey, was really directed at Dr. Malik, from whom it drew a prompt retort as he expounded at some length the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Dr. Humphrey joined enthusiastically in the discussion, and I remember that at one-point Dr. Chang suggested that the Secretariat might well spend a few months studying the fundamentals of Confucianism!
In other words, pluralism is hard work! It demands that we grapple with various conflicting and even irreconcilable answers to questions like: What constitutes a human being? Is sex biological and how fluid is gender? When does life begin and what are the rights of the zygote/embryo/fetus/unborn? And most fundamental of all, to my mind: What choices do human beings have the right to make for themselves, even if others find those choices morally abhorrent?
When I look at the composition of the commission, the main problem I see is an utter lack of courageous grappling with the thorniness of religious and philosophical diversity – not because of the views of those that were named, and not because of the various faith commitments present, but because of the absence of a variety of views represented. Such grappling is the challenge of interfaith work. Diversity is not engaged when the various members of a group look different or identify differently – religious diversity is engaged when difficult and opposing views are present. For the commission to not engage those difficulties is a cop out, packaged in interfaith window dressing. In the end, it is a dereliction of duty and an abdication of true leadership.