A year ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked a group of scholars “to furnish advice on human rights grounded in our nation’s founding principles.” In normal times, this would be a dog-bites-man story — at most. But we don’t live in normal times.
So, Mr. Pompeo’s naming of a bipartisan Commission on Unalienable Rights, chaired by Harvard legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon, author of a book about Eleanor Roosevelt, provoked outrage, anger and intolerance.
An example that sticks in my mind: A staff writer for The New Yorker suggested that Mr. Pompeo should be disqualified from any discussions about human rights because he “was, for many years, a Sunday-school teacher and a church deacon.”
Last Thursday, Mr. Pompeo formally presented the commission’s report at the National Convention Center in Philadelphia. “It’s important for every American, and for every American diplomat, to recognize how our founders understood unalienable rights,” he said by way of introduction. Unalienable rights, he emphasized, must “underpin our foreign policy.”
He then pronounced three sentences that, in normal times, would be regarded as anodyne: “As the Report emphasizes, foremost among these rights are property rights and religious liberty. No one can enjoy ‘the pursuit of happiness’ if you can’t own the fruits of your labor! And no society can retain its legitimacy — or a virtuous character — without religious freedom.”
Within minutes, denouncements were flowing into my email inbox. The American Humanist Society called the 60-page report — which by then no one could have read — “Pompeo’s Christian nationalist agenda.” Democracy Forward declared the commission “unlawful.” Human Rights First accused Mr. Pompeo of attempting “to recast American foreign policy in the mold of his personal religious and political views.” The New York Times characterized Mr. Pompeo’s remarks as “divisive.” CNN reported that “the top US diplomat appeared to fan the flames of division.” Mother Jones condemned “Mike Pompeo’s Twisted View of Human Rights.”
I saw no effort to actually examine and criticize the arguments made by Mr. Pompeo and his commissioners. Instead, the clear intention was to delegitimize them, to declare them subversive dissidents — violators of the orthodoxy dictated by the Human Rights Establishment.
Anyone who actually bothers to read the report — essentially an academic primer of the kind that, in normal times, college freshmen would be assigned — will find it far from extreme. Nor does it attempt to gloss over America’s human rights failures.
One example: “Respect for unalienable rights requires forthright acknowledgement of not only where the United States has fallen short of its principles but also special recognition of the sin of slavery — an institution as old as human civilization and our nation’s deepest violation of unalienable rights.”
Another: “Progress toward the securing of rights for all has often been excruciatingly slow and has been interrupted by periods of lamentable backsliding.”
The report emphasizes “the nation’s unfinished work in overcoming the evil effects of its long history of racial injustice.” However, Mr. Pompeo also called for recognition of the fact that it was America’s Founders who gave us “the tools to ultimately abolish slavery and enshrine in law equality without regard to race.”
The Founders were revolutionaries, and not just in the sense that they took up arms against the British empire. More significant was their creation of a nation-state committed to “unalienable” or “natural” rights. As articulated in the Declaration of Independence, such rights are not granted by monarchs or even elected leaders. They are given by a “Creator,” and they inhere in the individual. The “first purpose” of government is to secure them.
Beyond the borders of what we used to call the Free World, hundreds of millions of people only wish they could discuss such issues openly. The contemporary reality, as Mr. Pompeo noted, is that authoritarian regimes “perpetrate gross human rights abuses every day around the world. Nicaragua. Venezuela. Zimbabwe. Iran. Russia. Burma. China. North Korea. It’s a very long list.”
He pointed out, too, that, “Multilateral human-rights bodies have failed us. The United Nations Human Rights Council does the bidding of dictators, and averts its gaze from the world’s worst human-rights offenses.”
In addition: “International courts have largely abandoned unalienable rights. The International Criminal Court is training its sights on Americans and Israelis, not the Ayatollah Khameneis of the world.”
Mr. Pompeo also chided “our incurious media” which “rarely examines any of these failings. The New York Times refused to publish Professor Glendon’s op-ed on this Commission’s report.”
In listening to Mr. Pompeo and reading the report, a question occurred to me: On what basis do we — you, I, Mr. Pompeo, his critics — understand and agree that slavery is wrong?
Doesn’t our shared belief stem from the West’s development of the biblical idea that all human beings are made in God’s image?
Isn’t it influenced by the America Founders’ Enlightenment conception of rights that those who govern are obliged to guarantee, and forbidden to take away?
And isn’t it rooted in abolitionism, a movement predominantly inspired by religion? As historian Sean Wilentz has pointed out, 7 of the 10 Philadelphians who in 1775 founded “the first antislavery society in world history” were Quakers — and the outsized influence of religious activists would continue for decades.
If the mandarins of the human rights establishment see opposition to slavery springing from different sources, if they have an alternative explanation for the origins of freedom, they should have the courage of their convictions, make their case and compete in an open marketplace of ideas. They should do that civilly, with respect for differing opinions — just as if these were normal times.
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.