Over the past two decades, the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University has had the privilege of directing fifteen major projects on law, religion, and human rights in interdisciplinary, interreligious, and international perspective. These projects have explored the contributions of various faith traditions to the cultivation—and abridgement—of human rights and democratic norms around the world. They have probed some of the hardest issues of religious persecution and bigotry, religious proselytism and discrimination, and rights for religious believers and communities. They have exposed the religious dimensions of rights for women and children, rights within marriages and families, rights to food, shelter, housing, work, education, and more. And they have provided a common table and an open lectern for deep dialogue and debate among scholars, advocates, and policy makers from multiple confessions and professions.
The obvious premise of these projects is that a legal regime of democracy and human rights is indispensable to the establishment of local and world order. Democracy is hardly a perfect system of government. But among current political forms, democracy holds the most promise for peace, justice, and a better life. It offers the best hope for those who suffer from persecution and penury, discrimination and deprivation. It affords the greatest opportunity for all to embrace and enjoy their faith, freedom, and family and to chart their own identity and agency as self-determining individuals and communities. Human rights norms, in turn, are not a complete map of the good life and the good society. But they have emerged today as one of the very few universal and cosmopolitan principles that are recognized around the world, even if sometimes honored in the breach. They provide normative ideals for persons and peoples, constitutional grounds for litigation and legislation, and diplomatic levers to press repressive regimes to reform themselves.
The less obvious premise of these projects is that religion and human rights need each other. On the one hand, human rights norms need the norms, narratives, and practices of the world’s religions. There is, of course, some value in simply declaring human rights norms of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” or “life, liberty, and property”—if for no other reason than to pose an ideal against which a person or community might measure itself, to preserve a normative totem for later generations to make real. But, ultimately, these abstract human rights ideals of the good life and the good society depend on the visions and values of human communities and institutions to give them content and coherence—to provide what Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain once called “the scale of values governing [their] exercise and concrete manifestation.” It is here that religion must play a vital role. Religion is an ineradicable condition of human lives and human communities. Religions invariably provide many of the sources and