Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Four Freedoms, Faith and Human Rights

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            On January 6, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt spoke of “four essential freedoms” in his annual State of the Union address.  They were the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear.  The freedom from want related to the economic deprivations of the Great Depression and the freedom from fear related to Hitler’s threat to Europe.  The freedoms of religion and speech were the timeless freedoms protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would later be made universal human rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

            The freedoms of religion and speech should be distinguished from the freedoms from want and fear.  The freedoms of religion and speech can be enforced as civil and human rights under domestic and international law, but the freedoms from want and fear are beyond the protection of law.  Most nations provide social welfare programs that address essential human needs (as distinguished from wants), but how those needs are defined by law must be left to each nation.  Even so, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) treats social welfare entitlements as international human rights.

            Providing economic assistance to the needy cannot be made an obligation of international law, but it is a requirement of economic justice and an obligation of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims according to their scriptures.  By way of contrast, those ancient scriptures say nothing about protecting the freedoms of religion and speech.  They did not become obligations of faith until after they were recognized as secular human rights following the Enlightenment; and even today the freedoms of religion and speech are not recognized as obligations of law or faith in many Islamic cultures. 

            There are similar distinctions in the priorities of FDR’s four freedoms in U.S. politics.  Republicans have traditionally favored individual rights, beginning with the freedoms of religion and speech, often at the expense of social welfare programs, while Democrats have traditionally favored social welfare programs.  A healthy democratic government must balance the individual rights defined by the ICCPR with providing for the common good, which includes providing those social welfare “rights” defined by the ICESCR. 

            Islamic democracies like Turkey and Indonesia provide fundamental human rights and provide for the common good, but most other Islamic nations deny fundamental human rights.  That is because the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam subjects human rights to Islamic law (shari’a), which includes apostasy and blasphemy laws that prevent any freedom of religion or speech.  Many Islamic nations also deny women and non-Muslims equal protection of the law.

            In order to balance individual rights with providing for the common good, Islamic nations need to eliminate apostasy and blasphemy laws and provide other fundamental freedoms enumerated in the ICCPR that conflict with the mandates of shari’a.  Conversely, the U.S. needs to balance its emphasis on individual rights with collective obligations to provide for the common good, including those social welfare “rights” included in the ICESCR.

            Human rights must be distinguished from political aspirations like those in the ICESCR that defy a universal standard needed for enforcement.  If “rights” to economic and social welfare assistance cannot be enforced, it brings disrespect to the rule of law.  Using similar logic, religious standards of behavior should be voluntary and not imposed as coercive laws like those that make apostasy and blasphemy crimes and preclude the freedoms of religion or speech.

            The four freedoms of FDR, the moral obligations of faith, and the laws that define and protect human rights are closely related, but they must be distinguished if human rights are to be enforced by domestic and international law; and without law to enforce them, human rights are meaningless.  While the freedoms of religion and speech are enforceable as civil and human rights, the freedoms from fear and from want are beyond the purview of the law—but they are obligations of faith.  So long as people of faith live by the greatest commandment to love God and their neighbors as themselves, they will be free from want; and as long as they believe that God is love and that there is no fear in love, they will be free of fear. (see I John 4:16-21).

Notes and References to Resources:          

Previous blogs on related topics are: Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; Wealth, Politics Religion and Economic Justice, March 8, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; Liberation from Economic Oppression, May 31, 2015; Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; Freedom and Fundamentalism, August 2, 2015; Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities, August 9, 2015; Legitimacy as a Context and Paradigm to Resolve Religious Conflict, August 23, 2015; and The Power of Freedom over Fear, December 12, 2015.

On how religion shapes concepts of democracy, human rights and the rule of law and for a comparison of human rights under The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, The Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, and The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, see Religion Legitimacy and the Law at pages 7 and 8 and notes 13-20 in Resources at;

Craig A. Stern has contrasted social and economic rights or entitlements such as those protected under the International Covenant of Social and Economic Rights (which Stern refers to as positive rights) with those fundamental freedoms such as those of religion and speech that are protected under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (which Stern refers to as negative rights), and concluded that treating positive rights as human rights undermines the rule of law.  See Craig A. Stern, Human Rights or the Rule of Law—The Choice for East Africa, March 6, 2015, SSRN, at

Amjad Mahmood Khan has written on How Anti-Blasphemy Laws Engender Terrorism.  See

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