We Americans are waffling between God’s blue sky and the Red Devil on the issue of human rights. It’s time to face the issues.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights forged by the United Nations in 1945 deserved both plaudit and censure.

On the plus side, it pledged U.N. member states to promote “universal respect for, and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction.”

On the minus side, totalitarian and other powers frequently violate the U.N. Declaration; membership has in fact become a matter of sovereign nationhood more than of mutually shared principles. The summons to fulfill U.N. ideals is now often rebuffed as an unwarranted intrusion into the domestic affairs of sovereign states. The U.N. has frequently declared itself powerless to act on rights violations. Tens of thousands of protest petitions reach the U.N. annually; only a few categories among them—currently apartheid and decolonization—get much attention.

The U.N. Declaration contrasts adversely with the notably more explicit statement on human rights embodied in the United States Declaration of Independence. Not only does the latter differ somewhat in its particularization of rights, but it identifies the divine Creator as the transcendent source and sanction of human rights. To a radically secular society, this may seem to be a bit of quaint poetry. But the fact remains that the insistence of the classic American political documents on a transcendent source and sanction of human rights (whether it was ventured on theistic or deistic principles or both we need not argue here) is of immense importance. Since the United Nations document is silent on the theme of the source and sanction of human rights, it leaves open the possibility ...

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