Santa Clara University


Religion, Ethics, and Politics in a Global Ethic

This section focuses on the search for a “global ethic” which would reflect the common concerns of all religions and the needs of world affairs. It presents the work of ecumenical theologian Hans Küng and others on such efforts. It also discusses the impact of religion and politics on the broad range of global topics addressed by contemporary ethics. These topics are preceded by a brief consideration of the relationship of religion and ethics according to Thomas Merton.

Thomas Merton on “Being Good”:

How shall we consider ethics? Ethics is neither politics nor religion, but most people consider it closer to religion than to politics because of its value orientation. However, not all ethics is religion, nor is all religion ethics. In fact, Thomas Merton speaks of spiritual experience as being “beyond ethics and politics.” Merton focuses at times on the great danger in the Christian or other religious traditions of the adherent focusing too much on “being good.” For types of ethics and their relationship to spiritual experience, see Cunningham, Lawrence S., ed., Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master: The Essential Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1992), pp. 153-57.

A Global Ethic (Hans Küng)

For over twenty years Swiss ecumenical theologian Hans Küng has fostered interfaith dialogue based on his conviction that:

  • No peace among the nations without peace among the religions.
  • No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions.
  • No dialogue between the religions without global ethical standards.
  • No survival of our globe without a global ethic.

In framing his global ethic, Küng focuses on common religious ethical support for respect for life (Do not kill), honest and fair dealing (Do not steal), speaking truthfully (Do not lie), and respect and love of one another (Do not abuse sexually).

Count K.K. von der Groeben founded the Global Ethic Foundation in Tübingen, Germany in 1995, after reading Küng’s Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic (1991). The Foundation, following Küng’s work, is based on the conviction that there can be:

“No peace among the nations without peace among the religions.

No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions.

No dialogue between the religions without research into the foundations of the religions.”

Click here for Global Ethics website

The Weisfeld Foundation of Scotland has sponsored the international tour of the Global Ethic Foundation materials and Chairs of World Religions for Peace at several universities.

Hans Küng, Selected Writings on a Global Ethic:

Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic (New York: Crossroad, 1991)

And Karl-Josef Kuschel, eds. A Global Ethic: the Declaration of the Parliament of the World’s Religions (New York: Continuum, 1993).

This text of the A Global Ethic is preceded by a Küng and Kuschel’s preface and the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. The Declaration is also available in English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Portuguese, German, Italian, Croatian, Bulgarian, and Bahasa Malay in Global Ethics website. Click here for The website for the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions. It last met at Barcelona in July 2004, at which time Küng and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi conducted a public dialogue. It will meet again in Australia in December 2009.

A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics (London: Oxford, 1998).

The United Nations and a Global Ethic

Kim, Yersu. “Philosophy and the Prospects for a Universal Ethics,” in Max L. Stackhouse and Peter J. Paris, eds., God and Globalization: Religion and the Powers of the Common Life (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity International Press, 2000), 69-104. Kim led the UNESCO program to draft an “Ethics Charter for the Twenty-first Century.”

See also Crossing the Divide: Dialogue among Civilizations (New York, 2001). This is the report of a UN committee chaired by Giandomenico Picco of Italy, with the staff support coming from the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University ( The eminent personages assembled were A. Kamal Aboulmagd (Egypt), Lourdes Arizpe (Mexico), Hanan Ashrawi (Palestine) Ruth Cardoso (Brazil), Jacques Delors (France), Leslie Gelb (USA), Nadine Gordimer (South Africa), El Hassan bin Talal (Jordan), Sergey Kapitza (Russia), Hayao Kawai (Japan), Tommy Koh (Singapore), Hans Küng (Switzerland), Graça Machel (Mozambique), Amartya Sen (India), Song Jian (China), Dick Spring (Ireland), Tu Weiming (China), Richard von Weizsäcker (Germany), and Javad Zarif (Iran).

The four chapters are Overview; The Context of Dialogue: Globalization and Diversity; A New Paradigm of Global Relations; and About the United Nations. At the end there are seven one-page biographies of “Unsung Heroes” and the biographies of the above. The “Unsung Heroes” are:

Dr. Faouzi Skali (Morocco) Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, especially Muslim-Chrsitian

Dr. Salahuddin Ramez (Afghanistan) global surgeon, died of sickness in Sierra Leone

Zlata Filipovic (Bosnia) diary of war, published by UNICEF

Jack Beetson (Australia) save indigenous culture

Margaret Gibney (Northern Ireland) childhood stolen by war, Blair reads letter

Sydney Possuelo (Brazil) Brazil’s Department of Isolated Indians

Dr. Sultan Somjee (Kenya) African Peace Museum, traditional approaches to conflict resolution

The book’s analysis of the changes in the United Nations begins with the founding in 1945. The founders sought above all to avoid World War III, so the institutional arrangements, especially the Security Council, were firmly anchored in the realities of power. The common denominator is as narrow as the UN Charter and as broad as the various International Covenants signed by the members. “The universality of the United Nations Organization and the diversity of its membership are at the basis of the tension between common values and identity.” (191) The text describes the bargain when some states seek “legitimacy” for their actions while others seek “participation” in the decisions. All give and get in that context.

In the beginning of the Cold War, the most desired U.N. stand seemed to be “impartiality,” often associated with Swedish leadership. This touchstone has to be succeeded by the notion of “credibility” which includes the idea of “fairness” to all. The Rwanda and Srebenica massacres brought a change within the institutions. Dialogue must lead to “reconciliation” or “transitional justice” which requires “spirituality”. (See the section on Reconciliation, pp. 198-216.) The writing of this report was coming to an end where 9/11 happened, so it is mentioned, but not worked into entire manuscript.

The U.N. has three major institutions, the General Assembly, the Security Council, and the Secretary General. “The Secretary General is not a job, but a mission.” He seeks to influence change without the main ingredients of power held by the Member States and the Security Council. He must thus be an interlocutor of credibility in furthering international law and in furthering the concept of an international civil servant.

For the role of the Secretary General, see Kent J. Kille, ed. The UN Secretary-General and Moral Authority: Ethics & Religion in International Leadership. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown Press, 2007. This book offers a comparative perspective by Kille and Dorothy V. Jones, then individual chapters on Trygve Lie, Dag Hammarskjold, U Thant, Kurt Waldheim, Javier Perez de Cuellar, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and Kofi Annan by Muldoon, Lyon, Dorn, Kuchinsky, Rieffer-Flanaghan and Forsythe, Lang, and Smith respectively. The final summary chapter by Kille treats "The Secular Pope: Insights on the UN Secretary-General and Moral Authority."

Resource Materials on Religion and Ethics in International Affairs:

Almond, Gabriel A., Appleby, Scott, and Sivan, Emmanuel. Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalism around the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. 

Appleby, R. Scott. The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999. 

Budde, Michael. The (Magic) Kingdom of God: Christianity and the Global Culture Industries. Boulder: Westview Press, 1997.

Casanova, Jose. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Coleman, John A., and Ryan, William F., eds. Globalization and Catholic Social Thought (Toronto: Novalis, 2005). This is a recent collection of the most prominent scholars in the area of Catholic Social Thought.

Diamond, Larry, Plattner, Marc F., and Costopoulos, Philip J. World Religions and Democracy. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. 

Fox, Jonathan. “State Failure and the Clash of Civilizations: An Examination of the Magnitude and Extent of Domestic Civilisational Conflict from 1950 to 1996,” Australian Journal of Political Science 38 (July 2003): 209. 

Fukuyama, Francis, The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press, 1992.

Gauchet, Marcel. The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion. Trans. By Oscar Burge. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Haynes, Jeffrey. An Introduction to International Relations and Religion. Harlow, Essex: Pearson Education, 2007.

Hollenbeck, David, S.J., The Common Good and Christian Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 

Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Inglehart, Ronald, et al. Modernization, Cultural Change and Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Johnston, Douglas, and Sampson, Cynthia, eds. Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, updated version with a new preface. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.  

Küng, Hans. Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic. New York: Crossroad, 1991. 

Laswell, Harold. Who Gets What, When, How. New York: Whittlesey House, 1936.

Lawrence, Bruce B. Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age, with a new preface by the author. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1989. 

Lonergan, S.J., Bernard J.F. Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. New York: Longmans, 1957.

Madsen, Richard, and Strong, Tracy B., eds. The Many and the One: Religious and Secular Perspectives on Ethical Pluralism in the Modern World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. 

Meslin, Michel. L’experience humaine du divin –Foundaments d’une anthropologie religieuse. Paris: Cerf, 1988.

Micklethwait, John, and Wooldridge, Adrian. God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World. New York: Penguin Press, 2009.

Mottahedeh, Roy P. “The Clash of Civilizations: An Islamicist’s Critique,” Harvard Middle Eastern and Islamic Review 2 (1995), 1: 1-26. 

Norris, Pippa, and Inglehart, Ronald. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Pleins, J. David. The Social Visions of the Hebrew Bible: A Theological Introduction. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2000. 

Spohn, William. Go and Do Likewise: Jesus and Ethics. New York: Continuum, 2000.

Wuthnow, Robert, “Understanding Religion and Politics,” Daedalus 120 (Summer 1991): 1-20.

Zakaria, Fareed, The Future of Freedom. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.

November 9, 2009.