Human rights issues clamor for the attention of interested Christians around the world. The minorities oppressed politically, economically and religiously in many countries of the world – Myanmar, Egypt, Syria, Indonesia, to name a few – receive some media coverage in the United States.
Baptists have championed human rights, concentrating their efforts on religious freedom, from the days of Thomas Helwys against King James I in 1611 to the present.
On Dec. 10, 1998, the U.N. commemorated the 50th anniversary of the adoption by the General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) approved in Paris on that date in 1948. I participated in forums, conferences and celebrations of the anniversary.
It is appropriate as the 63rd anniversary is remembered on Dec. 10, 2011, to survey some of the salient aspects of Baptist participation.
Organization of the United Nations
Leaders representing mainline Protestant denominations were active in the preliminary discussions leading to the creation of the U.N.
Forty-two non-governmental (NGO) international organizations were invited for the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in 1944. Many were religious.
The ecumenical Protestant community organized in 1948 into the World Council of Churches had strived in the interwar period for an international world organization.
John Foster Dulles, a Presbyterian elder (and later secretary of state) became the principal adviser to the U.S. delegation in San Francisco in 1945.
Lutherans, United Church of Christ, Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists were significantly involved in the deliberations of the conference leading to the formation of the U.N.
Enlightened Baptist leaders participated actively in the proceedings. J.M. Dawson, chair of the Baptist Joint Committee of Public Relations, now Baptist Joint Committee for Public Affairs, narrated in his memoirs the sense of expectancy he experienced when he attended, in 1945, the organizational meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco.
Writing in “A Thousand Months to Remember,” Dawson said, “To that meeting, I carried a hundred thousand petitions from Baptists, North and South, white and Negro, asking that the Charter to be adopted would include a guarantee of full religious liberty for every human being.”
Dawson later addressed the Baptist World Congress in Copenhagen in 1947, setting high hopes for the value of the U.N. in world affairs.
“We hope also for the United Nations to inaugurate a new birth of religious freedom for the world,” he said at the congress.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The Commission on Human Rights was established June 21, 1946, under the Economic and Social Council. Eleanor Roosevelt was chosen as chair. Charles Malik, from Lebanon, was the rapporteur.
It met in three long sessions between 1946 and 1948. It drafted the UDHR, which was adopted in Paris on Dec. 10, 1948.
Baptists and Human Rights
The Baptist World Alliance, under the guidance of its Human Rights Commission, published a booklet “Baptists and Human Rights,” written by James E. Wood Jr.
A task force on the U.N. (of which I was chair) in cooperation with the American Bible Society republished a booklet, “Life in All Its Fullness: The Word of God and Human Rights.”
One million copies were printed on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the UDHR and distributed to interested churches and organizations, including the Baptist Joint Committee of Public Affairs, led at that time by James Dunn.
President Jimmy Carter and Human Rights
President Carter is an active Baptist layperson and has shown publicly how his religious beliefs have shaped his public life. He once observed: “America didn’t create human rights. Human rights created America.”
One of the Carter presidency’s greatest achievements was the Camp David Accord between Israel and Egypt in 1978.
Since 1981, The Carter Center in Atlanta has been devoted to many important initiatives, including the Human Rights Program.
In 1994, the Human Rights Program formed the International Human Rights Council, chaired by President Carter and comprised of 28 leaders from around the world.
As Baptists continue their efforts for religious liberty and human rights, we are the inheritors of peace and justice.
Although human rights are a lofty ideal, individuals and nations are still struggling to measure up to the model of the Prince of Peace and to enforce all human rights for all peoples of the world.
Baptists must pray, become informed and earnestly attempt in their own sphere of influence to be God’s instruments for human rights.
David F. D’Amico is a retired Cooperative Baptist Fellowship representative to the U.N. He has taught in several theological seminaries in the United States.