Democracy & Human Rights

Democracy & Human Rights

Title: Democracy & Human Rights
Published by: My Social Interests
Contributors: Natasha Sivret
Pages: 8

The sovereignty of modern nation states is manifested through the enactment of a variety of legislations; more specifically their materialization often stems from constitutional documents. Constitutions are not only bestowed with the role of enacting the institutions and procedures by which the state is to be governed but also function to establish the fundamental principles and values which thereafter guide the relationship that individuals have with one another as well as with the state.

“Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law” – Preamble, Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms The sovereignty of modern nation states is manifested through the enactment of a variety of legislations; more specifically their materialization often stems from constitutional documents. Constitutions are not only bestowed with the role of enacting the institutions and procedures by which the state is to be governed, but also function to establish the fundamental principles and values which thereafter guide the relationship that individuals have with one another as well as with the state. Canada’s Constitution Act of 1982 greatly reflects the principles and values of a democratic nation, particularly because the document contains the Charter of Rights which guarantees individual freedoms such as the right to life, security and equality[1].

Nonetheless, the assertion of the sovereignty of a nation which establishes a set of principles with respect to the rights of man finds its ideological basis in natural law, which bears a resemblance to the sovereignty of God. This leads questioning as to the existence of a connection between the divine dogma of Christianity, God and the democratic principles to which Canada ascribes. It will not be contended that the state wishes to impose the belief of a certain religion onto its inhabitants, but rather this article aims to explore the faint and subtle ways through which Christian principles still resonate in modern democratic discourses pertaining to human rights.

Natural Law, Human Rights and the Constitution

The development of discourses pertaining to the establishment of the immutable rights of man in the past century started to be ascertained whilst the space usually reserved for the clerical in politics started to erode[2]. It would hence be fallacious to overlook the link between the two, notably in that the enactment of human rights is predicated upon the instalment of a certain moral code. As Toulouse remarks, the Church became divested of its role of the “arbiter of public morals” as the state became increasingly active in the “development of human beings”[3]. Consequently, given that law and morality are duly interconnected, particularly in the realm of human rights, this entails questioning with respect to the foundations of the values upon which the rights entrenched in the Charter find their bearing.

It can be said that the success of the emergence of nations may be because it functions as a substitute for the role of religion used to have in our society, namely in that the adherence to nationalistic sentiments entails the belief in a communal past and moral code which are perceived to be shared by the inhabitants of the same nation. This conceptualization of the nation has been subtly acknowledged by certain authors. For example, Hobsbawm sees the inventing of traditions to legitimize the emergence of nation states as needing to find “their own equivalents for the traditional rites of passage associated with religion”[4], whereas Habermas contends that the authority of the religious groups had in the past, which was predicated upon a “Divine Right”, has now been substituted by secular democratic participation[5].

It follows that from a theoretical standpoint there exists numerous similarities between the sovereignty of nation states, along with its legislative documents containing natural law, and the sovereignty of God. In fact, the relationship between democracy, God and human rights may not be as faint as we might like to think. In the past century, a wave of concepts in regards to the establishment of human rights have emerged in democratic nations with legislative documents such as the Canadian Bill of Rights, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These rights are of such a crucial importance for the respect of the dignity of individuals that the doctrines upon which they are predicated are to the effect that they are universalistic, inalienable and transcend even the authority of the state. Since the rights of man are of such a significant importance as they are what differentiate free and democratic nations from dictatorships, the roots of the rights to life, dignity and equality are often claimed to be found in natural law due to the intrinsic virtues and capacity of human beings to reason[6].

The notion of natural law is defined as encompassing the most “absolute values, justice and truth’”, claims to be “immutable, eternal, objective and beyond any particularized political or historical context” and is thus “superior to human law”[7]. In other words, human rights transcend regular laws in that they dictate a universal moral code thought to be precept in the most elementary concepts of justice and are hence not only natural, but rational and undeniably applicable due to all human beings. It has been argued that the theoretical justification for this is because man was created in the image of God, thus the entitlement to divine rights exists. Herein are doctrines which denotes how God represents the higher source from which our rights are derived without promoting a specific set of Judaeo-Christian principles[8].

In point of fact, Christianity is the religion which first introduced notions whereby all members of the human race are equal, notably in that they have a common birthright to freedom. It is in this spirit where arguments to the effect that equality before to eyes of God has lead to ideologies in regards to the equal rights of man and democracy[9]. Furthermore, in his paper, Helis traces back the roots of human rights and nationhood from antiquity to present day and acknowledges a certain transition from the divine right of monarchy to how the sovereignty of the state takes on the role of the creator[10]. Lastly, all individuals, regardless of their race or belonging to a socioeconomic stratum, are said to be able to benefit from forms of universalistic rights pertaining to human dignity which is similar to Christian principles which vows on God’s acceptance of all human beings. The only difference is that the universalistic principles of the intrinsic rights of man are now articulated in secular terms which are perceived to go beyond the beliefs of a specific religion.

What’s more is that a shared set of values, identities and purpose are unavoidably needed to link the numerous inhabitants of a territory that make up a nation[11]. Not only are discourses relating to the secularization of the state henceforth required to establish a sentiment of belonging among all of the inhabitants of nation needed, but values instilled by legislative documents must include all inhabitants’ regardless of their backgrounds[12]. The crystallization of these precedential values become increasingly difficult in a vast territory and multicultural society like that of Canada, thus the governing set of values becomes almost superfluous as they must speak to all cultural groups which make up society. Once again, the expression of these principles is usually through discourses pertaining to the equality of all individuals in the eyes of the law[13], just as all are equal in the eyes of God.

Lastly, we cannot fail to take into account theories which contend that the only compatible form of government with Christianity is that of democracy. For example, Schirrmacher discusses how 79 of the 89 free democracies that exist in present day are predominantly Christian which is indicative of the commonality between the two. Once again, this is evidential of the sources of the set of values found in democratic nations in regards to Christianity as the precursor for the development of public codes of morality, laws and, in turn, for the ordering of society.

Democracy and Assimilation

Problems arise when the beliefs of minority groups do not coincide with the “reigning constitutional principles” as interpreted by the dominant culture[14]. The occurrence of this phenomenon, common in multicultural nations such as Canada, results in the practice of attempting to assimilate minority groups to democratic values and, as Balibar and DuBois affirm, there exist an idea whereby “the land of the Rights of Man has been entrusted with a universal mission to educate the human race”[15] and that there is the “European idea of the duty of civilized races to impose their political sovereignty upon civilized, or half civilized, or not fully civilized, races anywhere and everywhere in the world”[16].

Hence, democratic principles have not only become a substitute for religion to assert the superiority of one group over another, but as well functions as a supplement for the establishment of universalistic moral codes through which the rights of individuals are recognized and asserted through the law. As God once was “the supreme legislator, able to employ even the selfish and acquisitive motivations of men to promote the general good – which to an evangelical, meant supremely the spread of the gospel”[17]is now substituted by the belief in the self-righteous duty to spread our democratic values onto minority groups. Toulouse describes this phenomenon as a “social force” in which religious knowledge is cleverly embedded[18].

To conclude, the secularization of moral codes through laws has replaced Christianity as the inculcator of value systems in modern nations. The instalment of this moral code, predicated upon ideas that they are universal and thus fair an all encompassing to all of society, not only results in the idea that all must assimilate to the dominant class’ way of life, but also has the consequence of excluding those who do not fit into these main discourses. Herein are the precepts of the interrelation between the Supremacy of God, Democracy and the rights of man, which leads us to question if the search for a universal set of values will become the object of eternal failure since the their conception is inescapably relative as it is culturally constructed.

References :

[1] See sections 1 through 15.

[2] We can notably think of the decline of the Church during the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, as well as the post-war period during which the state worked to control public education systems, health care and the marketplace.

[3] Toulouse, Mark G. 2014 Two Nations under God: Religion and Public in Canada and the United States. International Journal of Public Theology 8(3): 267– 291.

[4] Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terence Ranger 2012 The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press.

[5] Habermas, Jürgen 1996 The European Nation State. Its Achievements and Its Limitations. On the Past and Future of Sovereignty and Citizenship. Ratio Juris 9(2): 125–137.

[6] Helis, John 2011 God and the Constitution: The Significance of the Supremay of God in the Preambule of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Master’s thesis, Carleton University, Ottawa.

[8] As Stanley argues, God is perceived as “the regular operation of the natural order according to the natural laws which God had imposed upon it”(Stanley 1983, p.72)

[9] See Helis. [10] See Helis.

[11] On this note see “What is a Nation” by Ernest Renan.

[12] See Toulouse.

[13] On this note see section 15 of the Charter which states: ”Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

[14] See Habermas. [15] Balibar, Etienne 2007 Is There A’neo-Racism’? Race and Racialization: Essential Readings 83.

[16] DuBois, W. E. B.1935 Black Reconstruction in America: Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. Transaction Publishers.

[17] Stanley, Brian 1983 “Commerce and Christianity”: Providence Theory, The Missionary Movement, and the Imperialism Of Free Trade, 1842–1860. The Historical Journal 26(01): 71–94. [18] See Toulouse.


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