Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

Principally political and economic rights based on the notion that all human beings have inherent dignity and worth as individuals, and that such qualities are entitled to societal protection. The concept has been subject to controversy within the religious community, as it seems to promote the rights of individuals over the community, especially the religious community, where rights and privileges are often not extended equally to all believers. The position of women within many religious organizations often has been cited as a case in point and has generated considerable conflict within and between religious organizations, and between religious organizations and their critics within the secular realm. For example, while the Roman Catholic Church has upheld and sought to justify different sets of religious and administrative roles for women and men on biblical or other grounds, critics note that this practice historically has excluded the former from the clergy (and higher office), in contravention of their "human rights." In Islam, the wearing of the hijab is seen by its detractors as a form of discrimination and of arbitrary subjugation of women believers.

Where many of the world's religious organizations and human rights advocates are coming to agree, however, is on the inviolability of universal economic and political rights. This is especially true of the Christian churches, which, in the past, either had actively supported or had turned a blind eye to systemic economic inequity (often resulting in abject poverty) and to arbitrary rule of political elites (often designed to retain and promote economic privilege for the few). In North America, early involvement in economic and political rights arose with the spread of the Social Gospel movement (1865-1915), which saw a number of religious organizations, primarily Protestant, begin to concern themselves with the welfare of the weakest members of society: farmers, factory workers, the poor, and so on. In Canada, the Social Gospel is credited with forming a major plank in the platform of the continent's first viable socialist political party, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), later the New Democratic Party (NDP), which has formed the government in several Canadian provinces since 1930.

Since 1970, Christian churches have become increasingly active in the promotion of economic and political rights on a global scale. In Latin America, for example, national church organizations officially adopted a "preferential option for the poor" after the 1968 Medellín meeting of the region's bishops, as a direct response to the economic policies and political repression orchestrated by a growing number of dictatorial (often military) regimes in the region. Members of the hierarchy wrote missives condemning the abuses of arbitrary government, calling for more just economic arrangements and a return to civilian rule. Activists within both the hierarchy and the laity worked directly with the poor to assist them in organizing against repression through lower class, self-help associations such as the comunidades eclesiales/eclesiais de base (CEBs). For their efforts, many members of the Catholic Church were expelled, jailed, tortured, and sometimes killed by security forces or clandestine organizations working in their service. At the same time, the drive for human rights, which was ultimately joined by a large number of other religious organizations, is credited with mobilizing popular support against repressive regimes in Latin America, which gradually began to dissolve after the late 1970s.

W. E. Hewitt


W. L. Holleman, The Human Rights Movement (New York: Praeger, 1987)

L. S. Rouner (ed.), Human Rights and the World's Religions (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988).

return to Encyclopedia Table of Contents

Hartford Institute for Religion Research   hirr@hartsem.edu
Hartford Seminary, 77 Sherman Street, Hartford, CT 06105  860-509-9500