Here’s what he actually said.
But more recently, questions about human rights have begun to give anxiety to some religious communities who feel that alien cultural standards are somehow being imposed – particularly in regard to inherited views of marriage and family. And so we face the worrying prospect of a gap opening up between a discourse of rights increasingly conceived as a universal legal ‘code’ and the specific moral and religious intuitions of actual diverse communities.
The presupposition of the Declaration is that there is a level of respect owed to human beings irrespective of their nationality, status, gender, age or achievement. They have a status simply as members of the human race; so that this language takes for granted that there are some things that remain true about the nature or character of human beings whatever particular circumstances prevail and whatever any specific political settlement may claim. While this is not – as a matter of fact – a set of convictions held uniquely by religious people, religious people will argue that they alone have a secure ‘doctrinal’ basis for believing it, because they hold that every human subject is related to God independently of their relation to other subjects or to earthly political and social systems. Human beings are held to be created by God ‘in the image and likeness of God’, as the Jewish and Christian Scriptures insist; they are seen as having a responsibility to reflect in their lives the love, fidelity and justice of God – hence the Torah, the law in the Hebrew Scriptures, and the various concepts of mutual nourishment and support in Christian Scripture, such as the language of membership in a single organism.
From one point of view, therefore, human rights has to do with the individual person, establishing the status of the person as something independent of any society; from another, it is a doctrine deeply opposed to ‘individualism’, since it locates this status of the person within a scheme that (logically) requires any person to acknowledge the same status in every other person, near or far, like or unlike. Every individual’s account of their own needs or desires has to be thought about and negotiated in the context of this mutual recognition, this assumption of a basic empathy between persons living out the same human condition. Take away this moral underpinning, and language about human rights can become either a purely aspirational matter or something that is simply prescribed by authority.
What this brings into focus is the anxiety that law is being used proactively to change culture – one of the chief anxieties of some religious people faced with developments in the application of rights. But surely – it will be said – this is exactly what is happening anyway when law establishes protection for previously unprotected or underprotected person or groups? Not exactly: when the law establishes protection or equality of access to public goods for a previously disadvantaged person or group, it declares that an agreed aspiration to a culture of dignity is damaged or frustrated by unequal protection and access. It secures what the very institution of a law-governed society is intended to embody, and it identifies as inconsistent or corrupt the refusal to extend recognition to particular persons or groups. Now laws change as societies become more conscious of what they are and claim to be; as I have said, it may take time for a society to realize that its practice is inconsistent – with respect to women and to ethnic, religious or sexual minorities. Law may indeed turn out to be ahead of majority opinion in recognizing this, but it has a clear argument to advance – that the failure to guarantee protection and access is simply incompatible with the very idea of a lawful society. But this falls short of a legal charter to promote change in institutions, even in language. Law must prohibit publicly abusive and demeaning language, it must secure institutions that do not systematically disadvantage any category of the community. But these tasks remain ‘negative’ in force. If it is said, for example, that a failure to legalise assisted suicide – or indeed same-sex marriage – perpetuates stigma or marginalisation for some people, the reply must be, I believe, that issues like stigma and marginalisation have to be addressed at the level of culture rather than law, the gradual evolving of fresh attitudes in a spirit of what has been called ‘strategic patience’ by some legal thinkers.
But on such a basis, it ought to be possible to revisit the connection between religious belief and the discourse of human rights with an eye to avoiding the dangerous standoff that threatens. The existence of laws discriminating against sexual minorities as such can have no justification in societies that are serious about law itself. Such laws reflect a refusal to recognize that minoritiesbelong, and they are indeed directly comparable to racial discrimination. Laws that criminalise certain kinds of sexual behaviour need the most careful scrutiny: legislation in this area is very definitely to do with the protection of the vulnerable from those with power to exploit and harm. Sexual violence against women and against children of both sexes is a tragic fact, especially in conflict-ridden societies and the law’s protection is urgently necessary. Go beyond this, and the territory is a lot more slippery. Many societies would now recognize that legal interference with some sorts of consensual sexual conduct can be both unworkable and open to appalling abuse (intimidation and blackmail). This concern for protection from violence and intimidation can be held without prejudging any moral question; religion and culture have their own arguments on these matters. But a culture that argues about such things is a culture that is able to find a language in common. Criminalise a minority and there is no chance of such a language in common or of any properly civil or civic discussion.
This isn’t quite the “over my dead body” language used in today’s Daily Mail, but it does indicate that Rowan does not believe that same-sex marriage is somehow an intrinsic human right to be secured by legislation.