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Symposium 2016: Fourth Plenary Session - Conference Summation and Concluding Reflections on Conference Themes
Image for Symposium 2016: Fourth Plenary Session - Conference Summation and Concluding Reflections on Conference Themes
Photo credit: Page Johnson

by Blythe Shupe

The fourth and final plenary session of the 23rd Annual International Law and Religion Symposium included an address by Brett Scharffs, Director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, comments from some of the delegates, and closing remarks from W. Cole Durham, Jr., Founding Director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies

Brett Scharffs opened the session by thanking the students, the Center Management Board, the hosts, performing groups, interpreters, staff, delegates, and all that participated. He thanked all for “sharing in a spirit of good will and a desire to understand and listen and work together.” 

Professor Scharffs began his presentation by asking, “Is religious freedom the grandfather of human rights or the neglected step child? As with most false dichotomies, the answer is both. In addition to being these, it is the underappreciated core of human rights.” He proceeded to speak about why we should care about freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). He laid out three important roles that FoRB plays. 

1. FoRB as a historical foundation. Without it, the entire human rights project may collapse from its own weight.
2. FoRB is necessary to resist stateism and other monistic views of state power
3. We may not have political and rhetorical systems to protect conscience without FoRB

FoRB as a historical foundation
The birth of many human rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, etc. have their roots in religious persecution. Non-discrimination laws even rose from religion.  “Freedom of thought, conscience, and belief including freedom of religion are the tap root of the tree of human rights planted with the Magna Carta, nourished by the Declaration of Independence with its inalienable rights and the French declaration of the Rights of Man, although more secular, describes foundational rights which it identifies as sacred,” said Professor Scharffs.

Professor Scharffs asked if we can expect the leaves and branches of human rights to survive if the roots have been cut. He referenced a “cut flower culture” spoken of by Simon McCrossan in his Symposium presentation. Once something is cut from its roots, it soon fades, withers, and dies. When we disconnect freedoms from their moral foundations, we threaten the leaves and branches. He gave an example of the banishment of the crucifix. The crucifix is a symbol of the Catholic doctrine and culture that created conditions for human rights. Prohibiting the symbol is rejecting the history. There is a lot more at stake than just the symbol.  

A trendy argument today is that FoRB is unnecessary and redundant. Many believe it is already protected by other rights. Professor Scharffs likened human rights to a bundle. Removing one stick will not weaken the bundle. But religious claims are among the strongest and most moral of claims. He said, “If we are unwilling to protect religious speech, should we expect other types to be protected, types less central to human identify and meaning? …I believe the questions answer themselves. If we are unwilling to protect FoRB then we shouldn’t expect institutions to protect other civil and human rights.”

FoRB is necessary to resist stateism and other monistic views of state power
Professor Scharffs spoke of the struggle between monism and dualism. Human rights was a reaction to the state monism of the Nazi regime, the idea that rights are a gift bestowed by the state that can be taken or given. The Dualist notion is that the state is justified in protecting individual liberty but the government is subject to certain limitations and rule of law.  He quoted the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, that all human beings are born free and equal. 

Dualism is a strong part of Western constitutions. But many challenges to dualism today come from non-Western voices that say that human rights are a Western imposition. Others pit human rights against discrimination--demanding complete social acceptance of gay marriage, for example. 

May lack political and rhetorical systems to protect conscience without FoRB
Professor Scharffs argued that without FoRB, there is no reason to respect and defend conscience. Conscience is one of those things that defines us as human beings. Public reason is often hostile to conscience. Conscience is private—the “prick of the heart, a feeling in one’s gut.” Public reason is committed to marginalization of private reason and therefore, we need FoRB. 

In conclusion, Professor Scharffs said that if we care about human rights and human dignity, we should care about FoRB. “I don’t think they (human rights) can survive if we deny people the ability to live according to the dictates of their conscience,” said Scharffs. “We need something like a dualist outlook to differentiate between the sphere of state authority and the sphere of non-state authority. Without religion, I’m not sure we have the morals to resist stateism. If we care about conscience, we must protect religious freedom.”

Following his presentation, Professor Scharffs asked some of the delegates to share their thoughts and feelings on the Symposium. Common themes were the intertwining of FoRB with other human rights, the need to be proactive in its protection, the value of relationships created and resources discovered, the need to work together and recognize the value of all voices, the value of interreligious dialogue, and gratitude to Brigham Young University’s students that assisted with the Symposium. Helio Carnassale summed it up well when he said that the legacy of the symposium for him was that each of us, within our own sphere of influence can make a difference. “I can’t embrace the whole world, but I can go to Arequipa or Argentina… and really be united, not just in discourse but in practice.” He continued, “May God bless you and may we go home not only with enchantment but with a desire to do something together.” 

Professor Cole Durham closed the session. He said that at the beginning of this conference, Heiner Beilefeldt challenged us to be provoked. “But be provoked in what sense?” In the Bible there are many passages in which people, especially God, are provoked to anger or fear. He commented, “the worst religious freedom violations are when people are provoked to anger or fear. Too often the response causes greater anger and fear and this results in discrimination, violence, crime and even genocide.” Professor Durham referenced Hebrews 10:24, “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works.” “I suspect that is more of what Heiner had in mind,” Professor Durham said. “We need to be provoked not to anger or fear but to responsibility--to sensitive and caring action not only within our own communities but with others outside of our own community…”

Professor Durham recalled various images from presentations including the cut flower culture image and, from the closing comments, the likening of human rights to a watch in which all part are vital to make the watch work. “If we lose the root, we will lose more than we know,” said Professor Durham. “That’s what worries me. We’ve become so used to freedom of religion or belief that we take it for granted as the air we breathe and don’t realize what other things will unravel if it does.” He spoke of FoRB as a historic foundation for human rights, of its overlap with other rights, and the outgrowth of other rights as additional support.  “FORB is not the only criteria of justice but is essential to a life lived abundantly.“ He said that while we should all remember and take seriously the broad array of rights, fostering other rights should not be accompanied by cutting off protections of religious freedom rights. 

Professor Durham concluded by encouraging all to be provoked unto love and good works, to be provoked to engage in dialogue that is genuine and deep, not to be satisfied with forms of interaction that lack substance but to encourage dialogue that ultimately results in shared actions. He encouraged the delegates to be provoked to step out of their own circles and pay attention to the needs of others, citing the examples of the Yazidis and the refugee crisis. Finally, he said, “Take a tough and deep look at ourselves.  We should be critical of solutions but we can’t afford to be paralyzed into inaction and cynicism.” He hoped that as a result of the Symposium all had learned much and established ties that would last.