The Glendon Commission

In July, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo created something called the “Commission on Unalienable Rights,” the purpose of which is to “provide the Secretary of State advice and recommendations concerning international human rights matters” along with “fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.”

The chair of the commission is Mary Ann Glendon, one of America’s leading Catholic intellectuals.  She is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican.  What’s more, she was Pompeo’s mentor when he was a student at Harvard Law School.

Many people on the political left have objected to the creation of this commission.  The expression “natural law” makes them nervous, as does the fact that an out-and-out Catholic like Glendon is its chair.

I myself am very pleased, because I hope it may serve, at least in some small way, to check the astonishing proliferation of “fundamental human rights” that we have seen in the United States in recent decades.  The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized a right to abortion (Roe v. Wade), a right to homosexual sodomy (Lawrence v. Texas), and a right to same-sex “marriage” (Obergefell v. Hodges).  In the future, if this trend continues, it will probably recognize a right to euthanasia.  And God only knows what else.

Those on the political Left have figured out a way of enacting their agenda while bypassing the democratic process.  You like X and you want it to be the law of the land.  But you can’t get X through Congress or state legislatures.  So you decide that X is a fundamental human right, a right that cannot be negated by popular majorities.

And then you go to the U.S. Supreme Court. And if you’re lucky the Court will have a majority of liberal justices on it, and they will agree with you.  And since, according to the liberal view, all fundamental human rights are implicitly contained in the U.S. Constitution (they are alluded to in the Ninth Amendment), X now becomes a Constitutional right.

If you object that you cannot find X in the Constitution, despite having read that document very carefully, you will be told that we have a “living Constitution” and that only out-of-date right-wingers read the Constitution literally.

If you reply that Justice Antonin Scalia once said, “The Constitution says what it says, and it doesn’t say something else,” you will be told that while Scalia was a fine fellow (since he was a friend of the saintly Ruth Bader Ginsburg), he was nonetheless an out-of-date right-winger whose originalism was as worthwhile as Confederate money.

The Declaration of Independence not only had a list of natural rights (equality, life, liberty, pursuit of happiness).  It also had an epistemology of moral knowledge. It held that the reality of these rights was self-evident.

Now if this is our standard (let’s call it the Jefferson standard), if we say that if X is to count as a fundamental human right, X will have to be self-evidently such, then our newer rights – the “rights” to abortion, to homosexual sodomy, to same-sex “marriage,” or to euthanasia – are not rights at all; for they are far, far from self-evident.  If they were self-evident rights, there would be an almost universal consensus on them.

If we were to use the Jefferson standard, only if almost every American agreed that X is a fundamental human right would the Supreme Court declare that X, despite not being mentioned in the Constitution, is one of those unenumerated rights alluded to in the Ninth Amendment.

But if we are not to use the Jefferson standard when deciding what is, and what is not, a fundamental human right, what standard are we to use?  Apparently, nothing better than a majority vote of the Supreme Court.  If five justices say that X is a fundamental right, X is a fundamental human right.

Now that’s just fine for many people on the political Left.  For they can then multiply “fundamental human rights” and hope that their multiplications will be ratified by at least five “living Constitution” members of the Supreme Court.  But for the rest of us, for people who like to think that we are living in a democratic republic that operates within the framework of a Constitution that was intended by its makers to be read literally, this potentially unlimited multiplication of fundamental rights is a disaster.

And for Christians too it’s a disaster – at least for old-fashioned Christians, who subscribe to the faith and morals of the early Church, e.g., orthodox Catholics and Evangelical Protestants.  For the leftist list of fundamental human rights contains items that are quite incompatible with Christianity.

And so, when the Supreme Court declares that, for example, abortion, homosexual sodomy, same-sex “marriage,” and euthanasia are fundamental rights, it is by very clear implication also declaring that Christianity is the enemy of human rights.

We are, as I see things, in the middle of a great but slow-moving cultural revolution in the United States, as atheists and their near-atheist fellow-travelers (including religiously liberal Protestants and Catholics) attempt to destroy the traditional Christian ethic and worldview and replace it with a God-less ethic and worldview.

So far, the atheist coalition seems to be winning. Their advance, supported by the mainstream media, the entertainment industry, our leading universities, and the Democratic Party, looks unstoppable.  And one of the great instruments of this advance is the idea that the leftist agenda can be enacted by the un-democratic “discovery” of more and more fundamental human rights.

Can the Glendon commission stop this advance?  Probably not.  But perhaps it can slow it down, giving Christians more time in which to rally their troops and fight back.  In any case, the work of the commission, and the atheistic reaction to it, will be absolutely essential to watch.

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America and, most recently, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist.