On a wing and a prayer: can religion revive the rights movement?

The international human rights movement has for the most part failed to penetrate the consciousness of societies where the worst abuses occur. It remains a largely elite project of activists and lawyers using global rather than vernacular language. Indeed, surveys suggest that the poor and the less educated outside of Latin America, even in countries with open media, know little about it. Their normative frameworks are often religious, not secular or legal.

Even when urbanites get riled up and take to the streets, they often lack the cohesion and staying power to get anything done. Despite the many press releases from Cairo’s human rights establishment telling Egyptian officials what they “must” do, by June 2012 the urban throngs clamoring for reforms in Tahrir Square found that they were facing a ballot choice between the candidates of a narrow-minded Islamist social movement and a military junta. The Muslim Brotherhood and the military could systematically organize the street and the polling booths to contend for political power, but the rights movement could not.


Massive crowd fills Tahrir Square to mark the Egyptian uprising (January 2012) ElsamRezo/Demotix All Rights Reserved.

Reflecting on the failures of the progressive agenda in almost all Arab Spring states, some rights activists have wondered whether they missed the boat by failing to mobilize a cohesive, disciplined mass movement of their own. While the Brotherhood was all too single-minded in pursuing its focused objectives, secular and moderate Islamist factions could show up for a rally, but couldn’t agree on a compromise candidate.

Barriers to creating a mass pro-rights social movement come from both the top down and the bottom up. On the supply side, Human Rights Watch founder Aryeh Neier wrote in openGlobalRights that popular movements are dangerous because they sometimes violate rights, and should not be encouraged. Stephen Hopgood argued that activists are often more interested in self-purifying rituals of shaming than in getting results on the ground. On the demand side, the oppressed tend to use the everyday language of social justice, rather than the language of “justiciable” rights, and their views are often  grounded in the community’s religious ideas.

This raises the question of whether the human rights movement needs to emulate methods of popular religious movements in order to compete with them. And if so, how? Must the global human rights movement literally co-opt religious partners in order to penetrate the societies of the Global South, where grassroots secular liberals are scarce or absent? Or should the rights movement operate more like a charismatic, evangelizing religion, but a secular one? Or is it enough to work at creating a routinized social movement, tied to secular, progressive constituencies?

There is plenty of precedent for religion as the route to successful social reform in developing and developed societies. Missionaries in the 19th and early 20th centuries had far more impact than human rights proselytizers do today, for example, by converting millions of Chinese to Christianity and in the process convincing them not to bind their daughters’ feet and to pledge their sons not to marry foot-bound girls. This reform’s impetus ultimately extended beyond the community of converts to the larger society.

Of course, even missionaries sometimes found reforms a tough sell. In the 1920s and 30s, Christian churches got mixed results at best in fighting female genital cutting in Kenya. In the short run, fighting this cultural practice played into the hands of nationalist politicians who portrayed it as imperialist oppression. Over the long haul, churches achieved greater success where they sustained a conversation over the practice than in places where they made change a strict condition of staying in the congregation.

In some cases progressive social movements were anchored in religious traditions and networks even as they sought largely secular social and political goals. Gandhi drew upon Hindu religious and cultural raw materials to mobilize a mass movement to oppose oppressive taxation, discrimination against lower castes, mistreatment of women, and colonial rule. These cultural themes were not only symbolic, but also defined behavioral models for adherents to develop the self-discipline and political focus to carry through the strategy of civil disobedience. Still, no matter how much Gandhi emphasized social and religious inclusiveness, the Hindu aura of the movement contributed to the fateful religious split in the Congress party and the bloody division of the Raj. Mobilizing around religion in a culturally plural society can be effective, but not without risk.

Turning from the Global South to the Deep South, Martin Luther King similarly based his mobilization of the African-American community for effective civil disobedience on black churches, their social networks, their local authority figures, their distinctive rhetorical style, and their “turn the other cheek” philosophy. This strategy had the further advantage of featuring an ethical language that was shared with powerful allies among the dominant racial majority.

King’s church-based strategy was in keeping with deep-rooted traditions of religiously inspired human rights movements in the United States and Britain. As Neier notes, the first popular movements that cared about other peoples rights, not just their own, were inspired by religious ideas and organized around church networks. Non-conformist religious groups on both sides of the Atlantic, including Quakers and evangelicals such as the Methodists and Baptists, opposed the slave trade and in due course pressed for the complete abolition of slavery. In Britain they found a common cause with principled Anglican Tories, such as William Wilberforce, and with pragmatic reformist Whig grandees who saw a chance to curry favor with the rising middle classes by adopting this popular issue.

In the United States, the abolitionists were a mass movement fueled by the enthusiasms of the Second Great Awakening of the early 1830s, when independent-minded Calvinists moved from New England to the boomtowns of upstate New York and Ohio. They invented their own populist camp-meeting style of religious activism, which careened from millennial religious perfectionism to abolitionism, sabbatarianism, teetotalism, prison reform, and most divisively, feminism. This overheated craze flamed out in a few years as a result of internal divisions and external resistance from mainstream opinion, but its embers helped fire the gospel-tinged discourse of reform that later party politicians such as Abraham Lincoln would use to resist “the Slave Power.” Today, some religion-based humanitarian and human rights groups, such as the Mennonite Central Committee, share the inclusive, rights-based, reconciliation-minded approach of liberal secular counterparts, while frankly explaining their motivations in religious, but non-proselytizing terms.

Religion might seem a strange bed partner for human rights, given the intolerance that sometimes accompanies religious zeal, especially in its mass politicized forms. What’s worse, even religions that sometimes champion for rights can take a bad turn. The Protestant Reformation, with its touting of the priesthood of all believers, sometimes sounded like the liberation theology of its day. Calvinists, for example, were eloquent about the principle of religious toleration, especially when Calvinist Huguenots were the ones under threat, using language that sounded very much like the Tom Paines and Thomas Jeffersons of the Enlightenment. The Calvinists John Milton and Roger Williams pioneered the doctrines of free speech and civic inclusiveness toward all religious groups. And yet Calvinists in power, whether it was Calvin in Geneva or the Puritans in Massachusetts, often imposed a ruthless and sometimes deadly conformity. Similarly today, Theravada Buddhism somehow manages to reconcile an enlightened-sounding, inclusionary doctrine with violent, exclusionary political practices where it is in the majority in Sri Lanka, Burma, and southern Thailand.

The good news, though, is that some intolerant, conservative, or ambivalent religions have changed their spots in a short time. Not long ago, it was common to hear the view that authoritarianism would always rule southern Europe and South America because of the culturally oppressive role of the rigid, hierarchical Catholic Church. Now statistical research shows a positive correlation between a Catholic population and a country’s prospects for democracy. According to one theory of the “market for religion,” new populist entrants into a national marketplace, such as the Evangelicals in Latin America, can cause hidebound religious establishments to stop supporting conservative elites and start backing social reform. When conditions turn favorable, reform movements may find religious partners who are surprisingly willing to embrace liberal international principles.

Liberalism and individualistic legalism are alien doctrines in much of the developing world, not just because of historical cultural differences with Europe but even more because the Global South remains strongly influenced by the logic of traditional society. As Emile Durkheim explained, the kind of individualism that human rights thinking depends upon was an offshoot of the modern division of labor in a complex market economy based on impersonal contracts, impersonal law, and social solidarity rooted in the complementarity of difference rather than in uniformity. In societies that are not yet fully modern, an ethics based on liberalism inevitably seems like thin gruel compared to one based on the communal solidarities of traditional religion.

This has potentially contradictory implications. On the one hand, many traditional religions in the Global South include illiberal, communal, and exclusionary elements. As a result, human rights activists may find few willing partners. The partners they do find on some issues, such as rights of religious minorities, might be unwilling to conform to rights groups’ standards on other issues, such as gender customs. Moreover, when rights groups support oppressed minorities, castes, or women that try to escape the strictures of the dominant religion, rights groups can get tarred with contributing to religious transgressions.

On the other hand, in societies where religion is the only game in town, the rights movement may be well advised to piggyback on its social networks and coopt the language of religion wherever it can in transitional societies. Such partnerships are not always found in the most obvious places. One of the keys to the surprisingly good performance of Indonesia’s young democracy, despite separatist war and Christian-Muslim rioting, has been the moderation, toleration, and commitment to rule-governed, participatory politics of its largest Muslim political party.

The power of religion in any society stems from its intimate connection to hot-button issues of family and mortality, and from the all-encompassing scope of religion’s claims on the affections and energies of the individual by defining the purpose of life. This is heightened by the individual’s dependency on the religion-defined community in traditional society and loosened by the opportunity for individual free-lancing in modern market society. Liberalism in long established modern societies can take on some of the characteristics of a “civil religion,” but in newly modernizing societies liberal concepts such as human rights remain weakly embedded. 

In such settings, the human rights agenda may need a leg up from progressive religion to gain organizational and emotional traction. Organized labor might provide a thickly developed alternative to religion in some circumstances, but normally labor organization has been repressed, coopted, or decimated by economic recession in the kinds of states that face endemic human rights challenges. It’s time for human rights activism to think creatively about how to tap the power of religion for progressive reform.