Expanding Our Vision of Human Rights

By Andrea Rice

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Human rights today are generally understood to be rights for individuals. The United Nations defines human rights as “rights inherent to all human beings.” This includes, but is not limited to, “the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression [and] the right to work and education.” Plenty of young people, including myself, are passionate about the concept of human rights. However, many understand this concept as a vague ideal rather than a concrete philosophy. In fact, human rights rhetoric today is often used to shut down, rather than open up, a conversation.

When understood as solely for individuals, a human rights framework is problematic for multiple reasons. For example, it is common to hear "healthcare is a human right" or "housing is a human right." Once statements like these are made, anyone who may take issue with them is often perceived as against whatever important social issue is connected to this claim. This is troublesome because many people who recognize the importance of assets like housing or healthcare may not feel comfortable embedding these causes in the language of human rights. If a certain social issue is declared a “human right,” the assumption is often that government is responsible for providing for it. Therefore, the implication behind “housing is a human right” is that individuals should be guaranteed housing by their government. Thus, human rights language, when used in this way, recognizes primarily the role of individuals and government but fails to consider the role of other non-governmental groups in addressing certain social issues.

While a modern human rights framework generally under-emphasizes the role of non-governmental institutions, there are other political philosophies that provide a more comprehensive approach to protecting the well-being of individuals and communities in society and attending to their basic needs. In this article, I argue that human rights, which I will refer to as “individual rights” throughout this piece, cannot be protected by merely focusing on the roles and responsibilities of government to individuals.

A Public Justice Perspective on Protecting Social Well-Being

A public justice framework holds that “government is authorized by God to promote what is good for human flourishing ... promoting the well-being of an entire society in right relationship with the larger world that God made.” Government has an affirmative, yet limited, role in advancing human flourishing. A public justice perspective emphasizes that the government must uphold policies that allow both individuals and groups to live out their distinctive roles and responsibilities. That being said, it is clear the government’s authority is not limitless and cannot offer the best care for every unique individual on its own. Contrast this with a “human rights” framework, which tends to solely emphasize the role of government in addressing the needs of individuals.  

Public justice insists that complex social issues are best addressed when individuals, groups and government work together to fulfill their own unique roles. This perspective, as opposed to a purely individual rights perspective, supports public policies that require just treatment for the social diversity of human life, which includes individuals, distinct communities and faith-based organizations. A public justice framework articulates that individuals, government and civil society groups all have distinct roles and responsibilities in promoting human flourishing. These groups — schools, churches, businesses, social services, etc. — are integral for individuals to live out their God-given identities and callings. Steve Monsma and Stanley Carlson-Thies, co-authors of Free to Serve, reflect on the significance of this truth in American society. They articulate the need to uphold a society with diverse groups to meet the particular and varied needs of individuals. They state, “[we should] come together in organizations that reflect a particular way of accomplishing some action” (Monsma & Thies, 2015, pg 99).

Public justice requires that individuals, groups and government work together to fulfill their own unique roles. It is vital that the communities in which we live our lives are protected and allowed to fulfill their distinctive responsibilities. For example, a young woman cannot fulfill her role as a daughter without the institution of family, just in the same way a student could not operate without an educational institution, or a worker without a workplace, or a worshipper without a community of worship. Individual identities are intrinsically connected to the communities and groups in which these identities are incarnated. Therefore, it is crucial to understand that in order to fully advance individual “human rights,” the rights and freedoms of distinctive communities and groups should be protected, as part of being human.

In a Christian worldview, every human being was created in the image of God. God created us to be relational creatures, which means He created us for community. This is true whether or not an individual accepts Christ as their Savior. An essential part of being human is forming relationships and associations with others. It is true that we have individual rights and responsibilities, but since we are social beings, we are designed to live in community. Human society is not meant to be one of isolated, purely individual matters, but one with distinct communities that embody specific missions. Human flourishing requires space for groups and organizations to practice their diverse expressions of humanity.

The Need for Distinct Communities to Fully Advance Human Flourishing

As I have discussed thus far, “human rights” language is problematic because it makes implicit assumptions about the role of government, to the exclusion of other institutions in society, in addressing issues facing individuals. Public justice asks what the right role and responsibility is for each sphere of society in advancing justice for all people, especially vulnerable people groups. Modern human rights paradigms, which overemphasize the rights of the individual and underemphasize the importance of the various communities (family, neighborhood, school, church, business) come up short here.

To take this idea from conceptual to practical, I will consider the specific social issue of  human trafficking. Sex trafficking is one of the biggest human rights issues today because of violations to life, movement, security and the forced subjectification to degrading treatment. Human trafficking victims are positioned into lifestyles that eliminate a sense of human dignity and worth. One example of an organization dedicated to supporting individuals who have experienced human trafficking is The Salvation Army. The Salvation Army is a non-profit organization with an anti-human trafficking program motivated by their faith in Christ and refers to human trafficking as “modern-day slavery.” This faith-based organization proclaims, “We therefore have the responsibility, both individually and collectively, to work for the liberation of those who have been enslaved in this manner.” Their faith conviction pushes them to “establish the legal and social mechanisms” to end human trafficking.

The abused and marginalized depend on these distinct communities acting upon their sacred animating beliefs to advocate for human dignity and protect individual well-being. Therefore, faith-based organizations should continue to be free to offer distinct care and programs aligned with their sacred beliefs and practices. Public policies should continue to uphold the capacity for diverse and distinct organizations, with varied animating worldviews, to offer services and programs that reflect their most foundational beliefs. We live in a pluralistic society. Individuals who face hardship have varied and particular needs and preferences, ranging from linguistic and cultural backgrounds to religious and moral beliefs. It is important that these diverse individuals have a wide variety of organizations to choose from to meet their own distinctive needs.


This article has explored why modern-day “human rights” language is often problematic. It could be argued that declaring a certain social issue as a human right automatically puts the onus on government to address this issue. Protecting the well-being of individuals is extremely important, but we cannot rely on government alone to protect individuals’ capacities to flourish. In doing so, we fail to consider other civil society groups and their roles in advancing societal well-being. We should affirm the government’s significant responsibility to allow other non-governmental groups to fulfill their God-given responsibilities. It is unlikely that “human rights” language will be reframed and expanded in public consciousness to include the interdependence of individuals and groups. However, this article has attempted, in some small way, to offer an enlarged vision of human rights: one that includes government but also recognizes the role other, non-governmental groups in securing social well-being and ensuring individuals have access to quality of life.

Individuals cannot live out their providential roles and responsibilities without the groups and communities that form the space where they practice these roles. Therefore, to fully protect individuals, we need to also support all the distinctive communities and organizations in which we live out what it means to be human. This extends to houses of worship, schools, arts and cultural organizations, civic and service clubs, businesses and all other organizations that bring people together around a common identity and purpose. In our discussions on human rights, we need to challenge Americans to think beyond the binary framework of the individual and of government. We have the potential to reopen the common understanding of “human rights” and to challenge others to consider how our own individual freedoms cannot be fully secured without also advancing the abilities for the diverse communities in which we live our lives to remain free to contribute to our pluralistic public square.  

Andrea Rice is an intern with the Center for Public Justice and a student at Westmont College.

Healing Communities: The Role of Faith-Based Organizations in Serving Returning Citizens

Healing Communities is an example of a  faith-based nonprofit organization that works collaboratively with other sectors of society, including government, to empower returning citizens with spiritual and physical resource for societal reintegration. This article discusses the how Healing Communities partners with other programs and resources, like Sacred Sector, to build capacity to promote restorative justice. Healing Communities’ coordinator stated at a recent event: “Sacred Sector does have a spiritual calling to provide resources to ministries to do these things. So let them help you do them!"

What Can Dunn v. Ray Teach Us About Religious Freedom and Justice?

What Can Dunn v. Ray Teach Us About Religious Freedom and Justice?

Collin Slowey, an intern with the Center for Public Justice, and Nicole Kennedy, a former legal fellow with the Center for Public Justice, analyze the vital religious freedom issues at stake in the recent Supreme Court case Dunn v. Ray. They highlight the importance of upholding the First Amendment in capital punishment cases. In addition, they encourage Christians to use cases like Dunn v. Ray to build common support for religious freedom, rather than focusing exclusively on the more divisive topics of sexuality and gender.

Reframing Religious Freedom: How Protecting Faith-Based Institutions is Essential to Public Justice

Reframing Religious Freedom: How Protecting Faith-Based Institutions is Essential to Public Justice

In February, the Center for American Progress hosted a presentation on religious freedom by Rep. Ilhan Omar. Andrea Rice and Collin Slowey, both interns with the Center for Public Justice, analyze the presentation’s content. They determine that Omar’s emphasis on the inclusion of individuals at all costs is at odds with a pluralist framework and leaves too little room for institutional religious freedom.

Press Release: Western Michigan Faith-Based Organizations Join Sacred Sector Learning Community

GRAND RAPIDS, MI (February 27, 2019) – Earlier this month, dozens of faith-based organizational and church leaders in Grand Rapids and the greater Western Michigan region launched a new learning community called Sacred Sector Western Michigan. Sacred Sector is an initiative of the Center for Public Justice, a Christian civic education and public policy organization. The learning community will be run in partnership with the Urban Church Leadership Center located at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.

New Year's Resolutions for Religious Freedom Advocates

New Year's Resolutions for Religious Freedom Advocates

In our current cultural and political moment, religious freedom in the United States is not generally regarded as a contribution to the common good. Nor is it thought of by most of the American public as a vital aspect of our pluralist democracy. Nor is religious freedom discussed as an invitational call, extended to all groups and all peoples throughout our diverse nation.

Yet religious freedom, as an ideal, is all of these. Open to all. Inclusive. A necessary precondition to the positive unfolding of the human condition.

Free to Serve [Part 1]: Religion in the Public Square

Free to Serve [Part 1]: Religion in the Public Square

Collin Slowey, an intern for the Center for Public Justice, reflects on the first two chapters of Free to Serve. In the book, authors Stephen V. Monsma and Stanley Carlson-Thies present the case for institutional pluralism in light of what they believe are growing threats to faith-based organizations’ religious freedom. Slowey recounts their compelling examples of First Amendment violations in modern America, takes a closer look at the cultural factors contributing to these violations and speculates on the future of religious freedom for the college-age generation.

Fellowship Perspective: Kerwin Webb

Fellowship Perspective: Kerwin Webb

Kerwin Webb, a seminarian at Princeton Theological Seminary, participated in the inaugural Sacred Sector Fellowship. The Fellowship is a learning community for emerging leaders who seek to work with faith-based organizations to integrate their sacred missions in the public square. This is accomplished through organizational practices, in public policy engagement and in cultivating positive public positioning. Webb recently shared his experience in the program and how he has applied what he learned to support his church ministry in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

A Sacred Act: How Religious Groups Can Support Nursing Mothers

Faith-based organizations and congregations often play a vital role in supporting the health and well-being of families, particularly mothers and young children. Many religious organizations believe the family is a foundational institution in society, created by God to serve as a first community for children. Many faith groups recognize the inherent beauty in God’s normative design for women to nurse their babies. By God’s great design, there is evidence-based research that shows how breastfeeding contributes to better whole-person (physical/mental, economic, relational) outcomes for all involved. Although breastfeeding is not always possible or practicable for every mother and child, there is strong evidence that breastfeeding has positive impacts on individual family members and on society.

A Meditation on Religious Freedom for the Christmas Season

Along with others who believe in the transcendent, in a greater force that binds and moves humanity, I view everything through the prism of my faith in God. Yet for those of us who seek our Creator, despite different religious beliefs and practices, we perceive a sacred force that is present in every aspect of life.

Religious freedom is the ability for those who believe in a sacred, higher power to express that reality. It is about preserving the ability or space to seek God in everything. It is the freedom to seek God not only in worship, but also, and even especially, in the things that appear the most apart from God: the dirty and the unclean, the daily and the routine, and in the midst of unfathomable tragedy. It is freedom to seek God in every stage of life: in birth, in work and in death.

A Shooting at the Synagogue: What is a Faithful Response?

On the last Saturday of October, a man armed with an AR-15 style rifle and three handguns entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, yelling: “all Jews must die. ” The gunman took the lives of 11 Shabbat service-goers.

This act against God and man is hard to put into words. And even harder is to consider what our response should be – particularly as people of faith who recognize that this act occurred to people of faith. In the wake of this tragic act many questions remain. What is the right response from the Christian church? From those of other diverse faith communities? From individual citizens and family? How should policymakers, advocates and faith-based service providers respond? What about those who hold strong views on violence prevention or racial justice?

Fellowship Perspective: David Tassell

Almost three years ago, my wife and I had the joy of joining Table Covenant Church, a church plant in Fairfax, Virginia. We immediately connected with the welcoming congregation and church vision: a commitment to the community and to cultivating a deep learning environment. Several months later, the church gave me the opportunity to join the staff as the Pastoral Intern for the remaining two years of my seminary program. These two years afforded me the opportunity to cultivate pastoral leadership in addition to my academic learning, and they drove my learning forward, fueling questions that ultimately connected me with the Sacred Sector Fellowship.

Join Our Informational Webinar on November 7, 2:00pm ET

We are here to support the good work you are already doing in your community, and provide the framework, resources and collaboration you can use to grow. Faith-based organizations face a variety of organizational, political, legal and cultural challenges, and we have developed a 3-part program to guide you through these complex issues. Join us for an informational webinar to find out how Sacred Sector could benefit your organization or network.

Positive Public Engagement: Successfully Living Out Your Faith-Based Mission

Positive Public Engagement: Successfully Living Out Your Faith-Based Mission

Showing community and public officials the distinct value of their mission and services is one way faith-based organizations can preserve their freedom to serve the community in accordance with their religious beliefs. As the Sacred Sector Toolbox on Public Policy states, “Positive public regard can influence lawmakers, regulators and courts to protect the religious freedom that faith-based organizations need.”

America World Adoption Association (AWAA) is a Sacred Sector participant and faith-based organization in McLean, Virginia that employs this concept well.

The Faith Community in Action: A Response to the Opioid Crisis

Broken families, crippling addictions, and tragic deaths: the opioid epidemic has taken an enormous toll on communities throughout the United States. Opioid addiction has been a serious issue in America since the late 1990s, when doctors started prescribing opioid-based painkillers for patients. Initially, opioid abuse primarily affected rural, small-town communities. In recent years, addiction has spread into suburban and urban areas as well. Now, an average of 142 people die every day from opioid-related causes, and the number of people who die of drug overdose in the U.S. every three weeks is equivalent to the number of people who died on 9/11. The opioid epidemic has also had a devastating effect on children and families.

Family-Supportive Workplaces Cultivate Holistic Healing

Paid family leave is an issue that affects almost every American at some point, from the new mother who wants to bond with her baby to the aging grandparent who needs help with medical care. Recently, Senator Marco Rubio introduced a bill that would allow new parents to finance their paid leave by drawing from their Social Security benefits early. Senator Rubio, along with Ivanka Trump, is hopeful that the bill will gain bipartisan support.

Mission-Driven Prayer Ignites Adoption Efforts

In the United States, faith-based adoption agencies have been a trending topic in the news. A recent vote in the House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment to a bill which prohibits the government from discriminating against child welfare agencies because of their “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions.” This bill will allow more faith-based adoption agencies to live out their religious beliefs by placing children in loving homes without compromising their views on traditional marriage.

Time to Flourish: Excerpt

Christian teaching contains a theology of work. It also affirms the significance of the workplace. Just as workers have a calling, the workplace has a calling as well. Workplaces produce goods and services that benefit customers. When they enlist workers in that creative task, they become the site in which humans live out their vocations. As Michael Naughton, a Catholic scholar of vocation and business, notes, “A community of work is only authentic when it serves those outside it in a way that develops those within it.” A workplace responds to its God-given calling when it treats all of its employees and workers with dignity and respect rather than as mere inputs to a production process.

Faith-based Advocacy Strengthens the Sacred Sector

Faith-based organizations are often caught in a net of contradictions while trying to advocate for justice in the public square. On the one hand, faith-based organizations recognize the biblical call to speak on behalf of the oppressed. On the other hand, advocacy and lobbying can be depicted as inappropriate activities for organizations with sacred missions, especially when government is involved. How are faith-based organizations supposed to bring about justice while avoiding government entanglement?