Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Human Rights Commentary by Churches

Via my friend and colleague Eugene Volokh, I learned of a report by the Institute for Religion & Democracy on Human Rights Advocacy in the Mainline Protestant Churches. Herewith an excerpt:

Research Design
We analyzed human rights criticisms made by four mainline Protestant denominations (the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.) and two ecumenical bodies (the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches) over a period of four years (2000-2003) to determine which nations were criticized for human rights violations and why. We used the 2004 human rights assessments published by Freedom House as a benchmark for human rights in nations analyzed. A given church statement or document was considered to have criticized human rights in country X when, in the context of a discussion of human rights in country X, it passed negative judgment on specific current policies or actions of the government of X.
Results
Overall, criticisms of Israel amounted to 37 percent of the 197 human rights criticisms offered by the churches during those years, only slightly higher than the 32 percent of criticisms leveled at the United States. The remaining 31 percent of criticisms were shared by twenty other nations. For every one criticism of any other foreign nation, one criticism was made of the United States and one of Israel. Nearly all churches demonstrated this focus on the United States and Israel in their legislative actions, their statements, their news sources, or all three.
As a result, nearly three out of four human rights criticisms were made of nations designated as free (mostly the United States and Israel) by the Freedom House assessments. Those rated not free totaled 19 percent of criticisms, while partly free nations totalled only 8 percent of criticisms. Of the fifteen worst human rights offenders in the world, only five were criticized by the churches during the four year period studied.
Regions like the Middle East (apart from Israel) and Central Asia (former Soviet republics) were the most notable areas ignored by the churches in their human rights advocacy. Partly free nations, where church influence might be most effective in widening the limited civic space already open to indigenous Christians and other citizens, received the least attention.
The 40-odd page report is well worth reading; it makes a pretty damning document. Not surprisingly, the authors of the report infer that anti-Jewish animus explains at least part of what's going on. In doing so, they rely a little too much for my taste on anecdotes rather than the raw data. Personally, by analogy to the legal concept of disparate impact, I'd be prepared to draw that inference from the data even without the supporting anecdotes. If anything, the anecdotes thus serve to provide ammunition for discrediting the report.

In any case, as someone who crossed the Tiber from one of the mainstream churches studied in this report, I must say I'm not surprised. In my experience, dealing with the bureaucracy of the PCUSA was more like dealing with a bunch of left-leaning politicos than people of faith. As the report suggests, at least part of the problem stems from the moral relativism and political correctness that pervades these denominations:

Without a strong sense of absolute moral standards based on the Scriptures and natural law, these church leaders may not be intellectually equipped to counter the self-serving arguments of dictators. By contrast, they feel more confident in criticizing the United States and Israel because those two nations share a common liberal democratic culture that values human rights, and therefore both can be subjected to criticism under the standards of that culture.
One of the things that most attracted me to Catholicism was the confident belief in moral absolutes expounded by church leaders like Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger. Having said that, however, I do see a lot of political correctness in many parishes and dioceses. Indeed, some of what I see resembles the report's description of attitudes among mainstream Protestant church leaders:
Mainline church leaders often look for a U.S.-supported or -imposed government which oppresses a people. In the case of Israel, the template seems to fit the situation. Mainline church leaders see Israel as a bastion of Western imperialism, supported by U.S. funds and foreign policy. They see the Palestinians as the people oppressed by the policies of both Israel and the United States. This is not, however, the pattern that generally emerges in most conflicts, which is possibly why situations like those in China, North Korea, Burma, or Central Asia—to note just a few examples—generally receive little attention. When U.S. policy cannot be blamed, the mainline denominations seem less interested in speaking up for the victims. ... This template is, in fact, anti-American in its assumptions. It sees American intervention overseas as inherently destabilizing and conflict-generating. It assumes American foreign policy to be driven primarily by colonialist, imperialist, or capitalistic motivations. And it rejects without due consideration the public justifications offered by the U.S. government for its policies.
It would be fascinating to see a comparable study of Vatican and UCCB pronouncements. Does our Church exhibit the same bias in its pronouncements as the mainstream Protestant churches? And, if so, why?

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