Human Rights in the Era of Trump?

15592Today, we have an exciting blog post from a scholar whose work connects the dots between politics and religion in fascinating ways. Jenna Reinbold is assistant professor of Religion at Colgate University. Her teaching and research interests include topics in religion and law, religion and human rights, and secularism and secularity. Her new Penn Press book, Seeing the Myth in Human Rights, explores the role of mythmaking in the creation of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She can be found on Twitter at @JTReinbold

2016 has been a surprising year for politics, to say the least. Political upsets such as Brexit and the U.S. presidential election raise significant questions going into 2017 about the futures of NATO, the European Union, and other key institutions of international governance. Some of the questions raised are pragmatic ones about precisely how such institutions will evolve or erode as a result of these high-profile populist referenda. Other questions, however, are much more fundamental ones about the nature of political authority and legitimacy in the contemporary world. Within this field of questions raised by the events of 2016, the issue of human rights is almost certain to feature prominently.

The overwhelming consensus among scholars and commentators is that political events such as Brexit and the election of Trump are symptomatic of, among other things, a widespread hostility within particular British and American populations toward the very idea of international governance. Such sentiments almost inevitably implicate contemporary human rights, which are, after all, an international ideal par excellence. What is perhaps less easy to imagine, however, is precisely what this “Western-centered” hostility toward human rights might look like in 2017 and beyond. Given the widespread tendency to associate contemporary human rights—for better or for worse—with the values and legacies of “Western” nations such as the Britain and the U.S., what discursive forms might human rights skepticism take within such nations?

This question has been of central importance to my own recent work on religion and human rights. The discipline of religious studies, I argue, has a variety of important, underexplored insights to offer into the logic of human rights—even when such rights are themselves offered up not as the product of particular religious legacies but in a universalist, secularized form, as they often tend to be today. Though my recent book focuses specifically on the religious dynamics of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this matter of the religious logic of universal human rights spans well beyond the Declaration itself. 

Consider the case of the United States, a country that has for years been home to a robust discourse of human rights skepticism. This discourse, which flourishes almost entirely among citizens on the political right, frequently portrays human rights and the international institutions that support them as, simultaneously, a threat to practical American interests and a threat to basic American values. This is a phenomenon only partially in need of further investigation, for there is actually nothing particularly outlandish about the claim that universal human rights pose a threat to certain practical American interests. After all, as Paul W. Kahn puts it, universal human rights hearken almost by definition to “a fundamentally depoliticized global order of equality among states and universal respect for the individual.” This depoliticized global order operates upon a presumption of political equality among nations and a commitment to the resolution of legal and political conflicts “by identifying claims of right, not by measuring assertions of power.” It hardly requires a stretch of the imagination to appreciate the manner in which such a political vision conflicts with the international political hegemony that the U.S. has long enjoyed and that many Americans understand as its prerogative.

We hit a deeper and subtler vein, however, when we begin to question what it means for skeptical Americans to portray human rights as a threat not merely to practical American interests but to basic American values. The human rights descriptions of two prominent right-wing commentators are illustrative here. In a 2007 invective against Paramount Pictures for its internationalist revamp of the G.I. Joe franchise, Glenn Beck described the propagation of human rights ideals and institutions as a “war against the American way”—a war waged from the top down by people determined to “indoctrinate our kids into hating their own country.” Much more recently, conservative firebrand Ann Coulter utilized the rise of American enthusiasm for professional soccer as a pretext for a bitter criticism of an ethos of egalitarianism and universal dignity that only the most willfully-obtuse reader would fail to recognize as a signifier for the basic ethos of universal human rights. Coulter ultimately entreated her audience to push back against the encroachment of this egalitarian ethos in the interest of preventing the “moral decay” of America.

What is the logic behind such visceral, identitarian responses to the idea of human rights? I would argue that this is a conflict that can only be fully understood through the lens of American civil religion: that realm of deep-seated, vaguely-Christian discourses and practices that have brought Americans together into political cohesion and activism throughout this country’s history. To conceive of human rights skepticism in the U.S. as a conflict over civil religion is to acknowledge the possibility that universal human rights, even in their most secularized guise, aspire in the way of all political ideals to engender deep-seated human loyalties that go well beyond mere political pragmatism. In aspiring to engender such loyalties, however, human rights always risk falling into intractable conflict with the more localized and longstanding civil religious impulses that have served to bind many Americans to their particular nation and to their unique national identity.

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