Summary of Lecture by Dr. David M. Kirkham

By Natalie Wright Romeri-Lewis

Professor David M. Kirkham’s presentation on “Human Rights, the Constitution, and Religious Liberty” instructed us on the various intellectual origins of the US Constitution. The Constitution’s “ideals and ideas” is the accumulation of the laws and philosophies of classical antiquity, English Common Law, the English Commonwealth, Enlightenment Rationalism, Puritan Covenant Theology, and other Christian thought. The framers were also influenced by their own state constitutions, geopolitical institutions, compromises, and other political-economic ideas. Of special interest is that at least five “state Constitutions required a test of faith before running for office.”  Although the Constitution’s checks and balances reflect “a construction of Enlightenment counterpoints,” the resulting document also reflects the Puritan ideal that American would set an example for the world. Thus, because “religion was as pervasive in the 18th Century as in the 17th, religion did affect the Constitution.” 

Professor Kirkham then contrasted the US Constitution with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”).  He explained that “the UDHR is not a constitution and is not binding, reads more like a Bill of Rights, but is more like a Declaration of Independence.”  Although a few non-Western nations helped draft the UDHR, Professor Kirkham asked whether the UDHR “is a Western document emphasizing individual liberties or a declaration of civil [or innate (by virtue of one’s birth)] rights?”  Kofi Annan stated that “no one list of rights is a blueprint for all countries.”  In response, China asserts that “a nation’s political and economic history requires rights to be relative within each country.”  This approach “concerns human rights activists that the UDHR will become meaningless if enough countries see it this way.”

Professor Kirkham encouraged attendees and those interested in religious freedom to join the debate: “We should embrace the UDHR and its language and dispute the evolution of rights when the discussion does not really include God-given rights.  Don’t fear and stay out of the discussion. . . .  We can embrace the language of the UDHR and be uncomfortable with some peoples’ interpretations of the language.  If same-sex marriage is discussed as a human right, we need to join the debate and ask, ‘Where does it get its universality, as does heterosexual marriage?’ “

The full presentation and Professor Kirkham’s helpful PowerPoint slides are all available here.