The Foundations Of Human Rights

by Robert L. Maginnis

This speech was delivered during the seventh Conference of
“Courage to Take a Moral Stance” in Feldkirch, Austria, September 12, 1999.

Democratic governments honor human rights. Perhaps that’s why we have a growing human rights problem. After all, fewer than 30 of the entire United Nations’ member states qualify as democracies; the rest trend toward totalitarianism. The modern phenomenon seems to be that as democracy declines, human rights violations increase. Thus, we must encourage democracy to preclude this progression.

I have observed that most modern democracies share two concurrent systems: Judeo-Christian values and capitalism. Although it’s not necessary for a democratic country to be Christian, an effective democracy must embrace values identified with the Christian faith. Japan, for example, is not a Christian nation, but U.S. Army General Douglas McArthur embedded Christian values in Japan’s government when he wrote that country’s constitution, hence Japan’s successful transformation into a democracy.

If it is true that democracies best protect human rights, then our goal should be to spread democracy across the globe. Efforts to do so have been mixed, however, perhaps because we put the cart before the horse. That is, we try to seed democracy through capitalism rather than first helping transform the culture’s values.

The former Soviet republics perhaps best illustrate the modern struggle to plant democracy. These countries espouse democratic ideals and want the benefits of capitalism, but neither system prospers because their cultures have not been inculcated with Judeo-Christian values. Seventy years of communism and a long history of authoritarian regimes have drained their cultures of key Christian principles. Today, widespread public corruption has both supplanted their economies and undermined their Judeo-Christian traditions.

China has a similar problem. Its totalitarian regime has allowed free enterprise zones, yet cracks down on incipient democratic thoughts and human rights. China will not become a prosperous capitalistic country until democracy blossoms. Meanwhile, human rights violations will continue.

The understandable volatility that results from struggling to become a democracy has a serious down side, however. The self-determination movement and its jingoistic sentiments have emerged and resulted in the splintering of struggling democracies before they can mature. The result has been the creation of tiny countries that are socially, politically, and economically unsustainable fiefdoms. These small countries become ripe for reverting back to totalitarianism. This trend has been seen in Africa, the former Soviet republics, and the Balkans.

To develop both lines of thought, I will expound on the concept that democracies emerge and prosper only when cultures are entrenched in Judeo-Christian values and when economies are fired by capitalism. Second, I will explain my caution that efforts to seed democracy before nations have key values and a functioning capitalist economy might inadvertently fuel a self-determination movement, which trends back to totalitarianism.


Democracy is the best paradigm for promoting human rights. However, a caution for those of us pushing for democratic reform is in order. In our zeal to improve human rights, we must curb the self-determination movement.

Although nationalism and the self-determination that accompanies it are aspects of the pro-democracy movement, they can also create a dangerous and bottomless pit. The question for reformers is “How much division is enough?”

Politically, across the globe we see such trends as the Kosovars wanting to separate from Serbia, only to find that after a (de facto) divide is made, then the Romas (gypsies) want to split off from the Kosovars and the ethnic Hungarians in Voyvodina from what is left of Serbia. How far will this balkanization go?

The same phenomenon is evident in Russia with respect to Chechnya and Dagestan, while several African countries face the same self-determination agenda.

Even though we should encourage oppressed people to seek democracy, especially in situations where human rights are jeopardized, we must recognize that numerous splits have risks. They can significantly undermine the chances that democracy will survive.

The establishment of democracy and the thriving of capitalism, which do and must occur concomitantly, require a certain political base for success. Throughout history kingdoms and tribes have bonded together (voluntarily or involuntarily), based on the implicit fact that power — that is, economic and governmental success — requires both territory and populations.

The world’s current romance with “self-determination” and independence movements reverses this historical trend and stands hope for democracy and freedom on its head. Unless we begin to understand that independence requires a certain amount of interdependence, much of the world will deconstruct into miniscule fiefdoms.

Look at much of the world today: It is breaking into smaller and smaller and — as a direct result — poorer and poorer states. How can a state the size of Kosovo, for example, ever hope to field the types of governmental and economic institutions that will provide political and economic freedom and prosperity? How can these tiny states compensate for their limited natural resources? Even if they have natural resources, how can these dwarf states support manufacturing, shipping, and banking industries? How can they also create and sustain institutions, such as universities and hospitals and research and development sectors, to even begin to reach the level necessary to be recognized as a developed nation? How can democracy and capitalism thrive if a state cannot even sustain a banking system without monies poured in by global benefactors? No economy exists at all when the state is running on foreign aid. And there is no democracy without an economy. Simply put, someone else owns the state.

Moreover, these miniature states are highly susceptible to a return to former days of warlords or land barons controlling government. People have to bind together somehow to have some semblance of law and order; otherwise they live in chaos, which cannot last long before the state self-destructs.

The reality is that breakaway countries with no resources, struggling to embrace democracy, may become so miserable that internal elements further divide them. This state of affairs works against democracy on a number of levels:

  • It makes the pursuit of capitalism nearly impossible, thus thwarting any hope of economic freedom, without which political freedom is impossible;
  • It makes the nation ripe for the reinstitution of fundamentally medieval economic and political relationships — warlords, land barons, feudal systems, and so on;
  • It becomes particularly susceptible to widespread public corruption (the people have no power, political or economic, with which to withstand its assault); and
  • By sheer lack of territory and population, it makes impossible the creation and nourishment of social, economic and political institutions, universities, hospitals, banks, legislatures, manufacturing plants, infrastructure (roads, bridges, airports, ports, and so on), and armed defense forces. These institutions ensure that the state is a developed nation whose people are free.

Is this what we desire? Not if we want the world to be filled with the peaceful breeze of democracy.

Yes, a time and place for self-determination and independence do exist. On the other hand, we have to understand the dynamics of what can result when such movements create microstates, which are poor, resourceless, and defenseless.


With what are we to replace the self-determination school of thought? Poland demonstrates that democracies blossom in cultures immersed in Judeo-Christian thinking. Famed Russian dissident and author Alexander Solzhenitsyn commented on the developments in Poland following the emergence of the democratic Solidarity movement in 1981: “It is the communist ideology that, with its heavy steps, is crushing Poland. The ideology of any communism is based on the coercive power of the state. Let’s not be mistaken: Solidarity inspired itself not by socialism but by Christianity.” Poland became a democracy because the Catholic Church prevented the communist regime from realizing its ambition for total control. Christian values sparked solidarity and, consequently, democracy.

Most democratic countries have failed to learn this lesson, however. Naively, the West has repeatedly tried to plant democracy across the world by promoting capitalism but has ignored the importance of first filling the values vacuum in totalitarian societies.

Promoting genuine religious freedom will slowly inculcate the emerging democracy with Judeo-Christian values. It happens one person at a time and eventually transforms neighborhoods, communities, and the entire nation. Once this seed has germinated and grows, then capitalism can prosper, and democracy is realized.

Judeo-Christian values originate in God’s Word, the Bible, and in church teachings. Exodus 20, for example, outlines the Ten Commandments, which define basic rights and wrongs. They proscribe murder, thievery, adultery, and dishonesty. Most societies espouse these values. They are key to the self-control democracies require.

Another biblical source for values is Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Jesus teaches the importance of reconciliation, commitment in marriage, truth-telling, generosity, fair business practices, appropriate punishments, and equality.

King Solomon’s proverbs also provide guiding principles.

  • All citizens must be honest in their dealings. (Proverbs 20:23: “Differing weights are an abomination to the Lord and a false scale is not good.”)
  • Leaders must be loyal, truthful and righteous. (Proverbs 20:28: “Loyalty and truth preserve the king; and he upholds his throne by righteousness.”)
  • Citizens must obey the laws. (Proverbs 28:4: “Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but those who keep the law strive with them. Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand all things.”)

Chapter 13 of the Epistle to the Hebrews emphasizes selflessness: “Let your character be free from the love of money … and do not neglect doing good and sharing; obey your leaders and submit to them.” In Romans 13, St. Paul writes, “Let every person be in subjection to the government … pay taxes [and] … love your neighbor.”

Can there be any doubt that democracy will prosper in countries filled with people who embrace these morals?

Countries with such citizens do not need a government agent telling them what’s right and wrong. Their faith has already established these parameters. Since democracy is the honor system of governmental forms, it works only if most people are honorable.

When people imbued with Judeo-Christian values form the body politic, they tend to answer the age-old question, “How ought we to order our life together?” in such a way that the common good is served. Human liberties trump selfish demands in this setting.

French observer of American democracy Alexis de Tocqueville said that religion is “the first political institution” of American democracy because it is through religion that Americans are schooled in morality. Of course, the same can be said of most democratic countries. Our faith teaches us morality and respect for one another and should be accorded the highest reverence.

This is why the lack of a broad-based commitment to Judeo-Christian values undermines and eventually destroys democracy or the possibility of establishing democratic institutions. For this reason, efforts to plant democracy without first entrenching Judeo-Christian values invariably end in failure.

The U.S. effort in Vietnam testifies to this fact. It was hopeless to think we could “establish democracy” in South Vietnam in the face of its large-scale public corruption. The people were not seized with the honorable Christian ethic. Democracy and capitalism could not prosper in such an absence of trust.

The Washington, D.C.-based Institute on Religion and Democracy recognizes this truth in its manifesto, asserting,

Democratic government is limited government. It is limited in the claims it makes and in the power it seeks to exercise. Democratic government understands itself to be accountable to values and to truth which transcend any regime or party. Thus in the United States of America we declare ours to be a nation ‘under God,’ which means, first of all, a nation under judgment.

In addition to religion, capitalism has a prominent role in limiting government “in the power it seeks to exercise.” Like democracy itself, capitalism can’t supply economic “law and order” if it is attempted in the context of public corruption or the absence of a Judeo-Christian tradition. It prospers only in a society where people are self-policing. But capitalism is necessary for democracy because one can’t have political freedom without economic freedom. The two are partners.

Citizens from countries with strong democratic traditions chafe under government’s ever-increasing trend to shrink their economic freedom through confiscatory taxation and wealth redistribution. When government has gone too far, free people force a return to capitalistic policies, which preserve democracy.


In conclusion, our goal should be to promote human rights across the globe. Democracy, which appears to provide the best forum for protecting these rights, results from seeding cultures with Judeo-Christian values that have at their center respect for human liberties. Only then should capitalism, the fuel that can sustain a democratic country, be started.

Democratic reform, which protects human rights, is important, but reform that splinters the world into tiny fiefdoms threatens the long-term growth of democracy. Therefore, establishing democracy involves anchoring a culture in Judeo-Christian morals while discouraging the subject country’s jingoistic elements.

Mr. Maginnis is the senior director for national security and foreign affairs with
the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council.

This article was taken the Family Research Council web site at

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15 apr 2000