The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 1 (Spring 2016)

Conservatism by Other Means

Christian Human Rights

Samuel Moyn

Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 1)

When it set to work in New York in 1947, the nine-person committee selected to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights included individuals from very different cultural, philosophical, and religious backgrounds, including Chinese, Middle Eastern, Hindu, Latin American, Islamic, Jewish, Christian, and Marxian traditions. This fact, along with the committee’s decision to exclude any references to God or religion from the document’s preamble, has led some scholars to claim that the concept of human rights was framed in strictly secular terms in the immediate postwar era.

It is increasingly clear, however, that religion—and, more particularly, Christianity—played a central role in the genesis and early promotion of the Declaration as a statement of putatively universal values. More significantly, between 1939 and 1947, Protestant theologians and church leaders—working through the World Council of Churches, the Commission for a Just and Durable Peace, the Federal Council of Churches, and other bodies, in close ecumenical partnership with the American Jewish Committee and the bishops of the Catholic Church—campaigned vigorously for the creation of the United Nations and “a new world order” dedicated to human rights. “In fact,” theologian Max Stackhouse writes, “the more this history is dug out, the clearer it becomes that [religious thinkers and leaders] supplied much of the intellectual and ethical substance that formed these so-called ‘secular’ documents.”

In his latest book, Christian Human Rights, Harvard historian Samuel Moyn—building on The Last Utopia (2010) and a group of essays collected in Human Rights and the Uses of History (2014)—seeks to excavate the importance of Christian social and political thought to the rise of human rights as a compelling moral concern in the twentieth century. Unlike Stackhouse, Moyn presents this story not in a celebratory but, rather, a deeply skeptical key. He aims to uncover the origins of “our premier principles” by taking an approach of “tough criticism rather than unreflective admiration.” The result is a work of critical scholarship that is by turns illuminating, puzzling, contentious, and flawed.

It was only in the 1930s and 1940s, in Moyn’s telling, that Christians for the first time embraced the vocabulary of “human rights” in any notable way. He asserts that whatever “percolations” of rights talk we might find in earlier sources are too murky, diffuse, and inconsequential to be credited, even partially, for this flourishing of human rights speech. If anything, he says, “Christianity had mostly stood for values inimical to those we now associate with rights.” Historians who seek to show otherwise, Moyn charges, are advancing a “fictitious” and selective teleological reading of the past that he brands “tunnel vision.”

What is most striking about Christian appeals to “human rights” in the thirties and forties, Moyn contends, is that they emerged not in defense of individual emancipation, following in the secular Enlightenment tradition of “the rights of man,” but as an “epoch-making reinvention of conservatism.” Order, not freedom, was the true goal. The emergence of human rights advocacy was not so much a progressive political movement as it was a retrenchment of bourgeois values under the banner of “personalism”—the Catholic “third way” for saving European civilization from those two perils of secular modernity: relativistic individualism, on the one hand, and authoritarian collectivism, on the other. “This liberation,” Moyn concludes, “was for the sake of subjugation: so that men and (perhaps especially) women could conform to God’s will and moral order.”

With the creation of the heavily Catholic-influenced Irish Constitution in 1937—which for the first time linked the vocabulary of “rights” with the notion of “dignity” in constitutional theory—“the discourse reached the heights of Christianity.” Pope Pius XII’s 1942 Christmas address, in which he championed “fundamental personal rights” before a wide audience, marked another “unprecedented” moment in the spread of rights talk. The same year, with the publication of Natural Law and Human Rights, Jacques Maritain would emerge as the period’s most important human rights theorist, arguing—in “a stroke of a master, or a sleight of hand, or both”—that rights find their true grounding in Thomistic natural law. “Thanks to Maritain, above all,” Moyn writes, “the older view that Christianity’s political and social doctrine could not be reformulated in terms of rights was dropped in exchange for the claim that only the Christian vision placing the personal entitlements in the framework of the common good afforded a persuasive theory of rights.”

It would take another three decades, in Moyn’s genealogy of rights, before “human rights” proper could finally “take off,” as secular leftists wrested the idea from the lexicon of reactionary (albeit in some ways noble) Cold War Christian thinkers, transforming its meaning into a more progressive forthright defense of personal liberties and placing it at the center of international law.

Yet, the Christian origins of human rights still “haunt politics” in our “regrettable” preference for moderation and the maintenance of order over more radical “bids for secular progress.” We live in an age of “guarded centrism,” Moyn laments, in which “human rights” has as much to do with “policing the borders and boundaries on which threatening enemies loom” as it does with advancing the cause of justice. He ends his book suggesting that the idea of human rights might now need to be abandoned “in the name of its own ideals or some better ones.”

The richness of Christian Human Rights lies in Moyn’s recovery of forgotten events and characters in all of their complexity and frequent moral ambiguity. Yet ultimately Moyn presents not so much an iconoclastic retelling of the history of human rights as a surprisingly conventional and historically questionable narrative about the meaning of secular modernity. It is the narrative of “Enlightenment” that is based on the assumption of a clear secular/religious divide. For Moyn, Christianity in some ways advanced but ultimately thwarted the forward march of history, and it has been left to radical thinkers to overcome the lingering effects of Christian personalism on our political landscape, presumably by pressing beyond dignity, and even human rights, if necessary, to arrive at new and as yet uncharted shores.

Moyn’s project is problematic in at least two additional ways. First, theoretically, he insists upon a highly stringent but seemingly arbitrary definition of human rights. Second, empirically, he fails to do justice to significant historical evidence that cuts against his thesis.

Many of Moyn’s statements about the recent origins of human rights are bewildering until one realizes how he is employing the term. “True,” he concedes in The Last Utopia, “rights have long existed.” However, he continues, “they were from the beginning part of the authority of the state, not invoked to transcend it.” Apart from “essentially random uses,” he argues, the phrase human rights gained “its first serious circulation in the English language” only in 1933, with the introduction of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms. But “the phrase meant different things to different people from the beginning,” and so “meant nothing specific” when it was first deployed. Further, even though the language of human rights was enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the late 1940s, “no international rights movement emerged at the time.” It was not until the 1970s “that human rights came to define people’s hopes for the future as the foundation of an international movement and a utopia of international law.” Hence, according to Moyn, we cannot speak of human rights as existing in any meaningful sense prior to the past half-century.

Following Moyn’s logic, when Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) marched on Washington in 1963, they were not marching for human rights, merely civil rights—which is perhaps why Christian Human Rights does not contain a single reference to the SCLC, King, or any other leader of the civil rights movement (unless one includes this single sentence: “Liberal Protestants were indeed some of the most committed to civil rights for African Americans”). Is this way of delimiting human rights strictly a matter of historical record, or a contentious theoretical and definitional choice?

Moyn’s claim that Christians embraced the language of human rights in any significant way only during the 1930s and 1940s is, in any case, demonstrably false. Google Ngrams, which can be used to chart trends in language usage over time and which is particularly accurate for the period 1800–2000, shows that the original breakthrough in references to human rights occurred not in the twentieth century but in the first half of the nineteenth. Between 1830 and 1850, human rights saw a leap in usage as dramatic as the burst in references to humanitarian interventions (to cite a single example) over the past twenty years. Indeed, during the 1840s, the phrase human rights was more popular in English-language publications than it was in the 1930s. Throughout the entire nineteenth century, human rights had a far more robust presence in English-language print than a host of words and phrases that are part of our current everyday speech (e.g., police brutality, green energy, hip-hop, affordable health care, nuclear proliferation, or Native American).

Who were the individuals appealing to human rights with such surprising frequency and directness a full century before the events Moyn describes in Christian Human Rights? The original breakthrough in explicit appeals to human rights was led by abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic, the most radical of whom were, virtually to a person, devout Christians fired by a distinctly Christian moral imagination. To cite perhaps the most prominent example, in 1831 the first issue of William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper The Liberator—predecessor to The Nation, where many of Moyn’s own articles have appeared—was published beneath the motto “Our country is the world, our countrymen are mankind.” In his inaugural editorial, Garrison wrote that he would be “as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice [in] the great cause of human rights.” Over the next three decades, The Liberator would include nearly 1,000 references to human rights. In 1835, the deeply religious lawyer Lewis Tappan (famous for his defense before the US Supreme Court of the slaves of the Amistad revolt) meanwhile cofounded an antislavery journal that was titled Human Rights. Over its four-year run, hundreds of thousands of copies were mailed to communities all across the nation.

As for Moyn’s assertion that nineteenth-century rights advocates thought only in forms “wholly compatible with the spread of national sovereignty, rather than imagining rules or rights above it,” we find counter-evidence not only in the audacious universalism emblazoned across the masthead of The Liberator but also, for example, in the 1844 abolitionist hymnal Anti-Slavery Hymns Designed to Aid the Cause of Human Rights. The work includes among its remarkable stanzas this chorus: “My country! ’tis of thee, / Strong hold of slavery, of thee I sing: / Land where my fathers died, / Where men man’s rights deride, / from every mountain-side, Thy deeds shall ring.” On what moral basis were abolitionists penning such deeply subversive indictments of the nation-state and its pretensions to sovereignty if not precisely by “imagining rules or rights above it”?

One would unfortunately not learn any of these facts from reading Christian Human Rights. Abolitionism is mentioned only once, as one of several “uplifting backstories” that, Moyn insists, have little if anything to do with human rights. Undoubtedly, the ways in which abolitionists used the term human rights differ from current uses in significant ways, but important differences do not erase basic continuities. Thousands of references to human rights, including those in a journal bearing the title Human Rights, represent no inconsequential or “essentially random” “percolating” of the idea that can be brushed aside as mere trivia in the telling of the story of Christianity and human rights. It is at least worth considering that when Catholic thinkers began to appeal to human rights in the 1930s, they were appropriating not the “rights of man” of Voltaire, Robespierre, or other figures of the French Revolution, but a grammar as well as a vocabulary of human rights that had been important parts of the Christian social and political witness (even if only as the “minority report”) for at least a century.

The fact that the abolitionists claimed the biblical narrative of the God who “sets the captive free” as the warrant for their activism raises the question of what “deep background” means in Moyn’s criticism of the work of other historians. In a recent issue of Boston Review, Moyn wrote that neither Jesus nor Paul had “any truly political vision.” The radical abolitionists apparently failed to understand their New Testament as well as Moyn does—although they did continually read, quote, and preach from the Gospels as well as from the Hebrew prophets in the name of human rights and justice for the oppressed. Slaveholders obviously quoted from the Bible as well, and according to Moyn, if a religious tradition is marked by different legacies, it is simply “unbelievable” to credit its founding texts for giving birth to contemporary morals. This is a non sequitur. Any particular set of contemporary morals might be precisely one such legacy of ancient sources, among others.

These problems with Christian Human Rights notwithstanding, Moyn drives home a vital point: The explosion of interest in human rights in the 1970s was one of staggering magnitude. That fact alone calls for a better explanation than just-so stories about the final blossoming of secular rationalism in the highest humanism. The best explanation for the breakthrough to contemporary human rights, Moyn suggests, is “the collapse of prior utopias and the search for refuge elsewhere.” These older utopias included those posited by Cold War political ideologies as well as Christianity, which in the 1960s “entered freefall” in terms of adherence in Western Europe. The language of human rights was embraced because it filled a moral and spiritual void that opened with the death of other idealisms. Radical Orthodoxy theologian William Cavanaugh provides a helpful term for such moral and spiritual transferences: “migrations of the holy.”

Ironically, the success of human rights as a secular religion has proven remarkably short-lived, at least judging from the elegiac tone of several recent works, including Moyn’s. His final verdict on contemporary human-rights regimes—that they represent an “exploding variety of rival political schemes” rather than the self-evidently pure and transcendent moral visions they clamorously claim for themselves—is absolutely prescient. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), there is Moyn’s hope for a “utopianism of the future” that will be emphatically not Christian or religious and that might somehow save us from the internal contradictions of human rights as we now find them in both theory and practice. To hold out hopes for such a future secular utopia may require the greatest leap of faith.

Ronald Osborn is an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the Peace and Justice Studies Program at Wellesley College and the author of Death before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (2014) and Anarchy and Apocalypse: Essays on Faith, Violence, and Theodicy (2010).

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.1 (Spring 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

Who We Are

Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

IASC Home | Research | Scholars | Events | Support

IASC Newsletter Signup

First Name Last Name Email Address

Follow Us . . . FacebookTwitter