Self-Evident Truths?

New book takes up old question of religion's relationship to politics

Michael Perry

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The idea that all human beings have equal, inherent dignity is the cornerstone of international human rights, and a notion most of us take for granted in our day-to-day lives. We understand that we may scream obscenities at a fellow driver from behind the wheel of our own car, but if we were to leap out and, say, hit him over the head with a bat, we would be violating not just our societal laws but the inherent human dignity upon which those laws are based.

In his latest book, The Political Morality of Liberal Democracy, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law Michael Perry begins with the question of why we invest one another with inherent dignity—and specifically, the role of religion in political morality. It’s fairly easy to see why people with a religious worldview believe in protecting the basic rights of others, Perry argues: if one believes that we all were created by God, then it is natural to perceive all as having equal worth and claim to certain privileges. But it is not as easy to support a political morality based on a purely secular position.

“It is not my point that one has to be religious in order to take human rights seriously,” Perry cautions. “That’s certainly not the case; in fact, a lot of nonreligious people are passionate about human rights, while a lot of religious people are human rights violators. The point has to do with this claim that each born human has this thing called inherent dignity and is to be treated accordingly. The question is what worldview can make sense of that statement, and a worldview that says the universe is meaningless has trouble accounting for this claim. Most religious worldviews don’t have that trouble because of their particular theologies.”

Perry stops short of saying that no secular belief system can support political morality, but he strongly hints he has yet to encounter one that does so to his satisfaction. The book, his eleventh, takes its place among his rich contributions to legal scholarship, “a powerful defense of liberal democracy and human rights—a defense grounded on religious faith,” says Lawrence A. Alexander, Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego. “Both for religious supporters of liberal democracy and human rights and for secular supporters, Perry’s book is must reading. But the provocative chapters on such topics as religious freedom, abortion, same-sex unions, and the role of courts provide additional reasons to read this book.”

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