Witte begins by covering familiar ground when he surveys the Classical, Medieval and Reformation Christian, and Enlightenment contributions to the contemporary notion of human rights. He them segues into the contemporary human rights scene with a brief recounting of developments since the United National Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
What is not familiar to most human rights activists is the historical grounding (or at least development) of the concept of human rights in the Christian tradition. Those who want to know more than you'll find in Witte's piece can read my article, Looking for Bedrock: Accounting for Human Rights in Classical Liberalism, Modern Secularism, and the Christian Tradition (download here).
What was not familiar to me were the increasing protections of "religion" in more recent and less well-known human rights documents. Witte begins with the 1981 Declaration on Religion and Belief and progresses through the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, the 1989 Vienna Concluding Document, the 1992 Minorities Declaration, and the 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Who outside the limited circle of human-rights insiders knew there was so much about religion? And who inside this circle is happy there's so much about religion?
The extensive consideration of "religion" in the context of human rights begs a question that Witte addresses: Is protection of religion, apart from liberty generally, warranted? In other words, are Western, elite secularists correct that religion is no more than a private caprice that should be tolerated but not overly-protected?
It is with respect to this question that Witte's contribution in Religious Sources and Dimensions of Human Rights is most significant. He describes five reasons why "religion" is unique among human endeavors and thus deserving of unique consideration as a human right. First, as I argued in Looking for Bedrock, Witte asserts that "human rights norms and cultures need religious ideas, institutions, and right claims to survive and thrive. Without religion, many rights are cut from their roots." And cut flowers, no matter how pretty, don't live long.
Second, as I also argued, "without religion, the regime of human rights becomes infinitely
expandable." Indeed, the human rights regime already has expanded its reach and made demands beyond anything that can meaningfully be understood as a right.
Third, I'll let Witte speak for himself:
Without religion, human rights become too captive to Western libertarian ideals. Many religious traditions—whether of Buddhist, Confucian, Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox, or Traditional stock—cannot conceive of, nor accept, a system of rights that excludes, deprecates, or privatizes religion. Religion is for these traditions inextricably integrated into every facet of life. Religious rights are, for them, an inherent part of rights of speech, press, assembly, and other individual rights as well as ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and similar associational rights. No system of rights that ignores or deprecates this cardinal place of religion can be respected or adopted.Fourth, "without religion, the state is given an exaggerated role to play as the guarantor of human rights." In other words, by reducing rights to those of individuals over against the state, human rights activists strangely fall into a libertarian understanding of politics, something against which I have inveighed more than once.
"Finally, without religion, human rights norms have no enduring narratives to ground them." Witte might have said that without (a true) religion, the whole scheme of human rights is a sky hook floating in mid-air but that would have been impolitic. In any event, Witte's piece is a fine introduction to the tradition of human rights, an even better survey of the place of religion in the contemporary human rights system, and a fine defense of the singular place of religion in that system.