Document Type : Research Article


Retired Professor of Middle East History, West Chester University


This paper will seek to present an understanding of the historical conditions that make possible a convergence of the selected religious teachings and human rights, and ask the question if such a convergence can operate successfully within a hierarchal bureaucracy such as found in government or institutional religion. The paper will look at three specific case studies where there has been a convergence of human rights and religion and the resulting struggle to influence the behavior of the state: 1. the example of Christian liberation theology in South America in the 1960s and 70s. 2. The example of the movement Rabbis for Human Rights within the Israeli milieu from its founding in 1988 to the present. 3. The example of CAIR –The Council on American-Islamic Relations– which presently operates in the U.S.

Within the teachings of most great religious movements are found principles of behavior that support the concept of universal human rights. However, these principles are overshadowed when the religious teachings are enlisted to the needs of institutions, be they of the state or established religious hierarchies. The needs of institutions and hierarchical bureaucracies do not reflect universal human rights and the principles of behavior that underpin them.  Rather, such institutions reflect the particular needs of interest groups and elites. These elites often are able to use ideology (which may be religious in nature) to cause their own special interests to be substituted for a community’s more general needs and interests. As the rules of behavior narrow to accommodate institutional and bureaucratic dictates, universal human rights becomes the cause of minority groups and others on the margin of society seeking to reinterpret and broaden the definitions of what is humane and proper behavior. It is within this struggle to reinterpret rules of behavior along the lines of universal human rights that a convergence between religious teaching and human rights becomes most possible.  But once again, this will happen as an alliance of those outside the dominant power structure.  The three case studies given above demonstrate how this struggle from the margins has been fought in three contemporary arenas. A reasonable conclusion drawn from this is that supporters of universal human rights seem, ironically, condemned to never to attain the structural power necessary to enforce, on a universal scale, the practice of their principles. For, no such structural power exists that is designed to realize such universal ends. Thus, even on those rare occasions when champions of human rights manage to attain positions of power, they are always restrained, co-opted, or otherwise compromised by the institutional and bureaucratic matrices of power–all of which are typically designed to promote and protect particular, and not universal, interests. Thus, from an historical prospective, those promoting universal human rights, even when allied to or inspired by religious teachings, are condemned to always fight as outsiders. For to move inside is to transform universal principles into special interest dictates.


  1. A) Books & Articles:

    1. Gospel of Luke in the New Testament of the Christian Bible.
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    3. James, William (1999).  Varieties of Religious Experience, N.Y.: Random House - Modern Library Paperback.
    4. Kennedy, David (2004). The Dark Side of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
    5. Klaiber, Jeffrey L. (1989). “Prophets and Populists:  Liberation Theology 1968-1988”, in: The Americans, Vol. 46, No. 1, pp. 1-15.
    6. Maggio, Paul Di (1998). “The Relevance of Organization Theory to the Study of Religion”. In: N.J. Demerath III, et. al. (eds), Sacred Companies: Organizational Aspects of Religion and Religious Aspects of Organizations, N.Y.: Oxford University Press.
    7. McGreal, Chris (2005). “The Rabbi who Pricks Israel's Conscience”, in: The Guardian International, March 25.
    8. Weber, Max (1968). Economy and Society, N.Y.: Bedminister Press.
    9. Williams, Rhys H.  & Demerath III, N.J. (1998). “Cultural Power: How Underdog Religious and Non-Religious Movements Triumph Against Structural Odds”, in: N.J.  Demerath III, Peter Dobkin Hall, Terry Schmitt, Rhys H. Williams, Sacred Companies: Organizational Aspects of Religions and Religious Aspects of Organizations, eds, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

    B) Website:

    1. Basic Principles of the Theology of Liberation, Available at:
    2. CAIR website:
    3. Daniel Pipes's website, Available at:
    4. Emerson's testimony on “Money Laundering and Terror Financing” before the US Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, July 13, 2005.
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    10. Jean-Pierre Cloutier, Theologies:  Liberation vs. Submission, Available at:
    11. Rabbis for Human Rights web site, Available at: