Does Human Rights Need God?

By Elizabeth M. Bucar; Barbra Barnett | Go to book overview

3
God and Human Rights in a Secular Society:
A Biblical-Talmudic Perspective

DAVID NOVAK


God, Human Rights, and Democracy

The concept of human rights is endemic to democracy. Indeed, its acceptance is what distinguishes a democracy from “ordered brutality,” to borrow the words of a leading democratic legal philosopher.1 To be sure, some democratic theorists have argued that there is an overemphasis on human rights, but that is when human rights are reduced to individual claims on society at the expense of individual responsibilities to society.2 Nevertheless, it is hard to find any such conservative critic of the overemphasis of human rights who would argue in principle for the value of a societal system that affirmed no human rights at all and only enforced acts that are duties to itself. And, as it turns out in fact, human rights seem to be affirmed only in democratic societies. Non-democratic societies, such as those run according to fascist, communist, or clerical (wrongly called “theocratic”) ideologies, are notorious for their denial of any human right that could challenge the absolute authority presumed by those who have power in these nondemocratic societies.3 So, these other forms of society are not only nondemocratic in principle, they are almost always anti-democratic in practice as evidenced by their contempt for human rights, even their contempt for the concept of human rights.

There is a great difference, though, between religious members of a democracy and its secularist members, especially in the ways they affirm human rights and even in the way they determine what some of these rights are. Also, even when religious people and secularists agree about a certain human right in practice, they frequently differ as to who are the actual subjects of this right. By “religious members” of a democracy, I mean those who publicly affirm their relationship with a god (most often, for them, the God) and who assert that their relationship with God has bearing on their political commit-

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