“The world has heard enough of the so-called ‘rights of man.’ Let it hear something of the rights of God.”
A powerful proposition—startling, perhaps even dangerous. When Pope Leo XIII uttered these words at the turn of the twentieth century, he issued a warning with the urgency of Kierkegaard’s famous fire-alarm-raising clown and was given about as much heed (as the heart-wrenching history of the unfolding century bears witness). The dignity of man is in grave jeopardy, the Pope cried, and the danger lay shrouded in the heart-warming rhetoric of the “so-called ‘rights of man.’”
The recent legal action of the American Civil Liberties Union, the twenty-first-century torch bearer of these so-called rights, shows that the danger persists. On the same day last week, the ACLU both filed suit to protest NSA surveillance and filed suit to block abortion restrictions in Alabama: the dignity of phone users upheld, the dignity of womb dwellers denied. The passage of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act in the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday had Laura Murphy of the ACLU in a huff of moral indignation: “Today’s vote is part of a wave of ever-more extreme legislation in the states and in Congress that interferes with a woman’s ability to make personal and private medical decisions.”
With rhetoric strikingly similar to that of Leo, the ACLU issues a dire warning in its own online encyclical:
A new kind of intolerance is creeping into our country—one that shrouds its true identity and uses the law as a means to codify discrimination. . . . We’ve seen this trend across a number of civil liberties issues including: attacks on marriage fairness for LGBT couples; efforts to deny women insurance for abortion care; people and organizations using religion as a basis to discriminate or denying services.
The ACLU, the Human Rights Campaign, and other like-minded organizations understand themselves to be defenders of dignity in the face of discrimination and champions of rights in the face of unfairness. For those of us concerned with the injustice cloaked by their cause, how can we best disabuse our heroic opponents of their claim to wear the moral mantle?
Pope Leo’s provocation may be a good place to start. The world has heard enough of human rights, not because those true and authentic rights are everywhere protected, but because their true foundation has too often been neglected.
It’s easy to assert human dignity. It is, after all, a rather flattering complement to our species. Who but the most self-pitying soul would reject such a sincere compliment? Dignity? Yes, please. Rights? Certainly!
Humanism is easy, but to its devotees in the ACLU we might pose the following challenge: What happens when your assertion, your flattering compliment to our race, is asked to prove its conceptual credentials? As flattering as it may be, human dignity can become rather inconvenient, burdensome, and undesirable, because human beings, even innocent ones, can become inconvenient, burdensome, and undesirable. Can you demonstrate that human dignity is more than an emotivist flattery?
It is of course, but to make such a demonstration the ACLU will have to hear something of the rights of God. Our nature does not belong to Caesar, but neither does it belong to us as individuals. There is only one who exercises the owner’s right, the right to inscribe the order of justice into our very nature. If our nature is merely our own, if it is not a gift from our Creator, then justice, rights, and even “dignity” remain but artifacts, convenient creations of those possessed of political might. The only solid foundation for human dignity lies in this: “we come from God and must return to Him.” Apart from our belonging to God, human rights are as invented as unicorns, human dignity as fictitious as witches.
With an anthropology divorced from the order of creation, our modern day human-rights torch bearers have lost the flame. They could, of course, ask for a light, but for that they will have to raise their gaze.
Image: Almsco, Lady Liberty Saluting the Sun