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Faith-based groups should not be excluded from the pursuit of worldwide equality

Pope Francis photo CC Catholic Church of England and Wales. Martin Luther King, Jr. CC Library of Congress. Malala Yousafzai photo CC Department for International Development (DIFD). Ghandi portrait public domain. Edits by Marta Kierkus

Religious groups have been, and can continue to be, a progressive force for good in modern society. But in an increasingly secular world, many people view religion as the ultimate obstacle facing human equality and progress.

It’s easy to see why, amid threats of extremist violence in the Middle East and the prevalence of oppressive practices of ultra-Orthodox sects like Lev Tahor. The Catholic Church’s recent decision to backpedal on plans for a more progressive outlook on homosexuality also doesn’t bode well for mainstream religious groups and their potential for being champions of human rights.

While I am definitely disheartened by the thoughts and actions of these specific groups, we cannot fall into the trap of perceiving all religious organizations as being inherently conservative, bigoted, and intolerant to change.

In doing so, we ignore what Larry Cox, former deputy secretary-general of Amnesty International, has characterized as the “inherent religious dimensions” of the human rights movement. In a post for the online forum Open Global Rights, Cox suggests that “when today’s human rights activists recognize and connect with those [religious] dimensions, they gain strength, new alliances, and the greater global legitimacy they so urgently need.”

What we need today is a new approach to human rights that is not purely secular, one that does not exclude every appeal to religion or faith. Historically speaking, faith and the human rights movement have, at times, been powerful allies. 

Take for example the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The influence of black church leaders is now widely recognized as fundamental to its success. Reunited in a common faith, its adherents believed “that their cause was right and that their pastors were called to a divine task by God,” according to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Moreover, the religious basis of the movement challenged the white Christian community in ways that secular movements never could.

As scholars point out, it is not uncommon for people of faith to be at the forefront of the world’s struggles for freedom and equality. Figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and more recently, Malala Yousafzai, the 17-year-old activist and Noble Peace Prize recipient from Pakistan, all fit under this description. Malala has never renounced her Muslim faith, and has chosen to pursue female equality within the context of Islam. 

These progressive attitudes are not limited to individuals. As Cox points out, entire religious groups are dedicated to advancing human rights within the context of religion; he lists organizations like the Network of Engaged Buddhists, the Jewish T’ruah, the Christian Faith in Public Life, and the Muslim Musawa,to name a few. Each one of these groups has succeeded in reconciling religious devotion with the prospect of a better and more equal future.

To be fair, many religious organizations (like the Catholic Church) still have a ways to go before they can truly live up to their potential. However, this doesn’t mean we should issue a blanket statement that paints all people of faith as backwards and intolerant. The principles at the heart of any human rights movement—that every human life has value and that a common good is worth pursuing—are among the fundamental notions of religion. 

It’s time we started viewing religion as part of the solution, not just part of the problem.