Human Rights, Dignity, & Flourishing in a Dangerous Age

Albert Mohler | President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary | Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Human Rights, Dignity, & Flourishing in a Dangerous Age


An address delivered as a Forum Lecture in the Marriott Center Arena at Brigham Young University by R. Albert Mohler, Jr., President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on Tuesday, February 25, 2014.

I am honored once again to visit Brigham Young University and to address both faculty and students at this great institution of higher learning. When I visited last October to speak in a different BYU context, I had the honor of meeting with members of your faculty and administrative leadership and I deeply appreciated the conversation we shared.  I also had the privilege of spending time with some of the General Authorities of your church, including Elder Tom Perry, Elder Quentin Cook, Elder Dallin Oaks, and several others. I am glad to know these men as friends. We face many challenges, and we face many of those challenges together. As always, BYU has extended the most gracious hospitality and welcome, and I am very thankful for the honor of being with you once again.

The presence of the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary behind the podium at Brigham Young University requires some explanation. I come as an evangelical Christian, committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to the trinitarian beliefs of the historic Christian faith. I come as one who does not share your theology and who has long been involved in urgent discussions about the distinctions between the faith of the Latter Day Saints and the faith of the historic Christian church. I come as who I am, and your leaders invited me to come knowing who I am. I have come knowing who you are and what you believe and my presence here does not mean that the distance between our beliefs has been reduced. It does mean, however, that we now know something that we did not know before. We need to talk. We can and must take the risk of responsible, respectful, and honest conversation. We owe this to each other, and we owe this to the faiths we represent. And we had better talk with candor and urgency, for the times demand it.

My presence here is indicative of one of the strangest and most ironic truths of all — that the people who can have the most important and the most honest conversations are those who hold the deepest beliefs and who hold those beliefs with candor and engage one another with the most substantial discussion of the issues that are of most crucial importance to us. And thus the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is thankful to be among you at Brigham Young University. You are a university that stands, as all great universities stand, for the importance of ideas and the honor of seeking after the truth. I come to honor the importance of ideas and the centrality of the search for truth with you.

President Samuelson, members of the faculty, and students, I come in what can only be described as a dangerous moment for us all and for the culture and civilization we commonly love. The most fundamental values of civilization itself are threatened, and we are witnesses to one of the most comprehensive and fast-paced moral revolutions ever experienced by humanity. The velocity and breadth of this revolution are breathtaking, and the consequences are yet incalculable. This society is dismantling the very structures that have allowed for the enjoyment and preservation of human liberty and respect for life. We are engaged in a head-long effort to replace the convictions that gave birth to democracy and ordered liberty with a new set of convictions that will lead to the emergence of a very different culture, society, and civilization. We cannot pretend that this is not happening. We cannot delude ourselves into believing that it will not matter.

Writing in a very different revolutionary era, Karl Marx declared that the modern age would sweep all conventional morality and political structures aside in a complete transformation of values. In his memorable words, “all that is solid melts into air.” We are in the age of the advanced meltdown of those values. What Marx promised is now happening before our eyes.

What can explain it? A witness to the collapse of Marx’s revolution, that great Russian prophet Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, explained it with four simple words: “Men have forgotten God.” And so they have. Nothing else can explain the great shift in worldview we are witnessing.

The word for the process that is driving this shift of worldview in the West is secularization. In the context of the late modern age, secularization is fully evident even where we thought it was absent — in the United States of America. For decades, the conventional wisdom held that Europe was becoming thoroughly secularized as religious belief melted in the face of modern culture, the rise of technology, the dominance of science, and the moral reorientation of the twentieth century. But that conventional wisdom also held that America was the great exception — a society that was simultaneously hyper-modern and highly religious, predominantly Christian. That conventional wisdom held until it began to fall apart, and it fell apart as it was recognized that there is more than one route to the secular. In Europe, that route was largely paved with open antipathy to theism and to organized religion. But there is another route to the secular, and that road is paved with the redefinition of religious beliefs, the eclipse of binding authority, and the open embrace of pluralism. There is more than one way to turn solids into air.

The average American does not claim to be an atheist, but a theist, and most often a theist of some specific sort, at least by family tradition. But there is often very little connection between the convictions of the faith that is named and the worldview of the one who claims it. Thanks to the media and messaging of modernity, millions of Americans have allowed themselves to be secularized without any antipathy to theism. They just think and emote and analyze and reflect as if they are secular people, for their worldview increasingly is secularized.

Among the elites the pattern is a bit different. As Peter Berger, one of the leading intellects on matters of secularization explains it, the elites are far more classically secularized than the masses. As he has explained, secularization theory worked right according to plan in Europe and on the American university campus. The elites who control the cultural content that emerges from Hollywood, New York, and the most prestigious academic campuses are, by any standard of measurement, far more thoroughly secularized and ideologically opposed to theism and its implications than the general public. These elites are, as elites almost always are, the dominant forces in the development of cultural messaging, public policy, and moral influence. And those among the intellectual elites tend to see those who hold to traditional religious forms and beliefs as suspect and potentially dangerous — those who would hold back what they believe is the necessary project of moral liberation.

The secular worldview relativizes morality, and our society has progressively compromised the moral system upon which it depends. A living body that has a compromised immune system will soon fail. A society that subverts its own moral immunities sows the seeds of its own destruction.

In other words, the secular worldview actually undermines the very values that the prophets of the secular age claim to cherish and preserve — human dignity, human rights, and human flourishing.

Human Dignity

Human dignity can survive only if we commonly believe and commonly affirm that every single human being, at every stage of development, is a person made in God’s image and bearing the dignity that is the mark of God’s personal possession. The only adequate conception of human dignity rests upon the biblical teaching that such dignity is not a human achievement, but a gift. Human beings do not achieve the status of dignity by their abilities or performance or development. Human dignity and the worth of the human individual is predicated only upon the fact that every human being is made in the image of God, and therefore is to be respected, protected, and cherished as a member of the human community.

We are now attempting to create a new vision of human dignity that is based in a secular vision of humanity. But what is that vision? If we are not made in God’s image, and if this is not the defining fact of our human existence, then who are we? The secular answer is not reassuring. We are, this vision holds, the highly developed primate that has invented the use of language and learned to cook food. If we are not created, then we are accidents. And if we are accidents, there is no essential dignity due us.

Back in 2005 the London Zoo featured an exhibit of humans. “Warning: Humans in Their Natural Environment” read the sign over an exhibit of scantily clad human beings, placed on display among the animals in the more familiar cages and enclosures. Polly Wills, a  spokesperson for the zoo, told the press: “Seeing people in a different environment, among other animals … teaches members of the public that the human is just another primate.”

Well, if we are “just another primate,” there is no essential dignity due us. Perhaps that helps to explain the twentieth century, with the horrors of the Holocaust and the specter of eugenics, the intention to enhance human breeding. The eugenic temptation, we should note, was not something far off across the sea, but something supported and endorsed by many American intellectuals.

Perhaps this reduced and secular vision of human dignity explains the killing fields of Cambodia, the forced starvation of millions in China’s Cultural Revolution, and the horrors of the Soviet gulags.

Perhaps it also explains the over 50 million American babies aborted in American wombs since the legalization of abortion on demand by Roe v. Wade in 1973. Perhaps it explains the virtual disappearance of babies now born with Down syndrome, aborted after genetic testing, and the demand for designer babies. Perhaps it explains the cult of abortion in this country and the refusal of so many in the elites to oppose even partial birth abortion. Perhaps it explains how one vocal advocate of abortion could recently declare that abortion is indeed a killing, but the killing of “a life worth sacrificing.”

Perhaps this new secular vision of human dignity explains the rise of sex-selection abortions in both the United States and Britain. Perhaps it explains the demand for euthanasia and the so-called “good death” that the government of Belgium in recent days has extended even to young children.

If we are not — if every one of us is not — made in God’s image and created for God’s glory, then why is a human infant of greater worth than a pig? Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, has gone so far as to argue that the pig might well have more substantial claim to a right to live. He has also stated that infanticide, the killing of young children after their birth, might well be justified under some circumstances.

If every one of us is not made in God’s image, how are we to reject his argument? I fear that our culture is losing the ability to answer such arguments with a candid and urgent and convincing counter-argument. The new secular vision of human dignity holds only that we are more developed than other animals, but some humans are surely more developed than others. Participation in the medal events at the recent Winter Olympic Games was not open to all, nor is admission to the universities where this new secular vision of human dignity is promulgated and promoted.

Human Rights

The affirmation of human rights is claimed to be the great moral achievement of the modern age. But this affirmation was based in the belief that those rights belong to every human being by virtue of divine creation. How can those rights survive when the foundation is destroyed?

The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, fresh after the horrors of World War II. It was adopted in a spirit of hope and desperation. The French intellectual Jacques Maritain, one of the leading Roman Catholic philosophers of the century, was one of the drafters of the statement. That Declaration is now cited as the definitive statement of the modern affirmation of human rights. The Declaration affirms that all humans possess “inherent dignity” and states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and in rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

That is an eloquent statement indeed, but upon what does it rest? Maritain saw the problem. In his words, “We agree upon these rights, providing we are not asked why. With the ‘why’ the dispute begins.”

And the dispute has never ended. Furthermore, the United Nations has proved to be a most inept protecter of the very rights it claims to defend — just ask the bleeding and dying citizens of Syria.

If we are biological accidents — just another primate — why should any individual human life matter? And why should we respect an abstraction called human rights?

An interesting witness to the force of this question comes from the late philosopher Ronald Dworkin. In his last book, Religion without God, posthumously published, the unbelieving philosopher made an awkward admission — philosophical naturalism cannot bear the freight of establishing human rights. Dworkin did not become a theist, but he argued that the only defense of human rights had to come from some spiritual argument, even if it took the form of what he called a “religious atheism.” This book was not his strongest work, but it revealed something really important. As one secular reviewer stated boldly, the old philosopher had become, against all his intentions, a theologian.

There is no secular ground that can support and defend human rights. Furthermore, there is no secular system that can adequately rank the claims to various rights that human beings present. Just look at our current situation. Demands for erotic liberty — the unrestrained right to full individual sexual expression, fulfillment, and legitimacy — now routinely trumps religious liberty.

Professor Mary Ann Glendon of the Harvard Law School has warned of the collapse of all human rights when everything is transformed into secular “rights talk.” Right and wrong collapse as meaningful categories when everything is a matter of competing “rights.” But without right and wrong, there is no way to say that the denial of basic human rights is wrong.

Interestingly, the very enterprise of modern human rights was an attempt to replace the Christian understanding of related rights and responsibilities with a thoroughly secular alternative. In his recent book, The Endtimes of Human Rights, Stephen Hopgood of the University of London makes this very argument, and he makes it convincingly. In his words: “My argument is simple: humanism (the cultural precondition for Human Rights) was a secular replacement for the Christian god.” The modern international enterprise of human rights is “a secular church,” he explains. The problem is clear — the members of this secular church are not even singing from the same hymnal. They do not share even a common set of convictions.

The modern confidence that human rights could be grounded in a secular worldview was a cruel delusion. The project of grounding human rights in secular human hopes was a spectacular failure. Without theism, there is no ground upon which to stand, and no ground upon which to defend the defenseless.

Human Flourishing

Our common hope is to see humanity flourish, and every system of government promises that it will lead, eventually, to greater human flourishing — to human development and liberty and enterprise and happiness and fulfillment. Such flourishing requires an adequate level of both security and stability, and, even more importantly, the necessary structures that allow human beings to flourish.

At the center of human society stands the most important of those structures — the human family. At the center of the family stands marriage. Every other structure, from government to schools to corporations to volunteer organizations stands upon the foundation of marriage and the family, and no structure can fully replace what is absent if the family fails or if marriage is not fully respected.

At the center of marriage is the promise of children and the investment of the responsibility to nurture the next generation of the human family.

Twenty years ago, not one nation on earth had legal same-sex marriage. Now, we are told that 40 percent of Americans live where same-sex marriage is legal. A sense of inevitablity now hangs over the entire nation. We simply cannot exaggerate the consequence to human flourishing if marriage is subverted and transformed so that it is no longer directed, as a human institution, toward procreation and the nurture of children. Human flourishing will be inevitably harmed and permanently debilitated by its redefinition.

And yet, as a society we have lost the ability to rank liberties and claims of rights. We lack the fortitude to state clearly that erotic aspiration and romantic legitimacy must be directed toward marriage and made accountable to it. We sowed the seeds for this lack of fortitude by our acquiescence to so called “no-fault” divorce and the idea of unfettered personal autonomy.

But what did we expect? Marriage has rightly been understood by every preceding culture as pre-political — before and beyond the reach of politics. Every culture in every century before us has understood that its task is the respect what comes before it and makes human culture possible — marriage as the lasting monogamous union of a man and a woman. Until now.

Our secular neighbors and friends also hope for human flourishing and they work out of a vision of what will lead to human flourishing. But while we understand their hopes, we also understand that such hopes are false and harmful if based on a secular foundation.

If marriage is simply a human development, we can rightly redevelop it. If it is evidence of the evolution of human relationships and romantic attachments, we can evolve further. If it is a laboratory for experimentation in hopes of greater human fulfillment, we can experiment with abandon. But if it is the gift of a loving Creator who made us in his image and gave us marriage and the family as among the most precious of his good gifts, our experiments will lead to disaster.

Strengthen the Things that Remain

In the Book of Revelation [3:2] we find the letter from the Lord Jesus Christ to the Church at Sardis. He commands that church to “strengthen the things that remain,” and those words certainly fit the challenges of our own culture and our own times. Without hesitation, we do our best to strengthen the things that allow and provide for human flourishing, that bear witness to human dignity, and that undergird human rights. We bear witness to the truth that these good things are not our own achievement or the result of our social experimentation, but are instead gifts of a sovereign and loving God, who brings himself glory and blesses his human creatures with these good gifts.

The task of those now living is to defend these truths in a time of danger — and defend them we must and we will. But we are not called merely to defend them, but to fulfill them and to receive them and to find our joy in them. This means that our task is not only to defend marriage, but to live that commitment before the watching world. Our task is not only to point to the dignity due every member of the human family at every stage of development, but to defend the defenseless and to work for the affirmation of this dignity in everyone — from the elderly to the infirm to the child with Down syndrome. We are not only called to defend human rights but to contend for them, and to insist that these rights are non-negotiable only because our Creator endowed us with these rights, and allows no negotiation.

When I was with you last October, I said something that got picked up by media around the world. I said that I believe that we will not go to heaven together, but we might well go to jail together. That was last October. That was four months and a few days ago. Since then, federal courts in your own state have ruled that your legal prohibitions of both same-sex marriage and polygamy are unconstitutional. Since that time, the President of your church has been summoned to appear in a secular court in London. Since that time, just over one hundred days ago, so much has changed.

Civil and criminal penalties have recently been leveled against bakers, photographers, and florists who could not in good conscience participate in a same-sex wedding ceremony. Erotic liberty is in the ascent and religious liberty is in peril.

We may go to jail sooner even than we thought.

This is why our conversation is really important, and why we need to stand together on so many urgent concerns. Most importantly, we are now called to defend religious liberty for each other, so that when they come for you, we are there, and so that when they come for us, you are there. We are learning anew what the affirmation of religious liberty will demand of us in this dangerous age.

But as I come among you, and I as am honored by this opportunity to address you, I come as a friend among friends to speak as who I am and of what I believe. As a Christian, my ultimate confidence does not rest in marriage, or the family, or civil society, or human rights, or any human affirmation of human dignity, not matter how robust.

My confidence is in the Lord, the unchanging God of the Bible, who revealed himself in the Bible and who redeems sinners through the atonement accomplished by his Son, Jesus Christ, who was both fully human and fully divine. My confidence is in the Gospel revealed by Christ and preached by the Apostles — the Gospel of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. I believe in the saving acts of Christ in his death, burial, and bodily resurrection from the grave. I believe that the Bible is our sufficient written revelation, inerrant and infallible and unchanging. I believe that God’s promise of salvation will be fulfilled and that all he has promised in Christ will be given. I believe in the truth unchanged and unchanging, because I believe in the God who tells us in the Bible that he never changes.

I can close my eyes at night and I can open them to face each day because I know that my Redeemer lives, and that history is in the hands of the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I know that I, along with all who come to him by faith, are safe in Christ. I can trust that he, as the Apostle Paul stated so famously, will be faithful to the end.

I am thankful for the honor of being among you today and the great honor of delivering this Forum Lecture. These are dangerous times, but also days of hope. In these times, it is vital that we bear witness with each other of matters that matter so much to our nation, our culture, and civilization itself. But, as we bear witness with each other about these things of such importance, we also bear witness to each other about what is even more important — eternally important.

You have been gracious to come and gracious to hear. I pray that God will use this lecture to his glory — and I pray God’s blessings upon you until we meet again.


I am always glad to hear from readers. Just write me at mail@albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/albertmohler

Ronald Dworkin, Religion Without God (Harvard University Press, 2013).

Stephen Hopgood, The Endtimes of Human Rights   (Cornell University Press, 2013).

Jacques Maritain, The Rights of Man and Natural Law   (Gordian Press, 1971).

"Crowds Go Ape over 'Humans' Exhibit," The Associated Press, August 26, 2005. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/9087023/ns/world_news-weird_news/t/crowds-go-ape-over-humans-zoo-exhibit/#.UwwNcEJdUVk

Publication date: February 26, 2014

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