Christian Human Rights
by samuel moyn
university of pennsylvania, 264 pages, $24.95

Samuel Moyn, a professor of law and history at Harvard University, makes a provocative claim: Human rights, the foundational principle of global, secular progressivism, originated as the project of Christian conservatives in the mid-twentieth century. During and immediately after World War II, these Christians—Moyn is concerned principally with European Catholics, but he also discusses American Protestants—appropriated the Enlightenment’s concept of human rights and transformed it into its opposite.

The Enlightenment had advanced the rights of man. The modern state was commissioned to secure these rights and break the power of a reactionary Church. In the postwar period, however, Christian thinkers and politicians such as Pope Pius XII, Jacques Maritain, Charles Malik, Robert Schuman, John Foster Dulles, and others captured the language of human rights, particularly the concept of human dignity. The post-Christian totalitarianisms of the twentieth century gained control of powerful nation states, trampling individual liberties and suffocating civil society. For Christian Democratic movements in Europe, human rights became the favored instrument for criticizing these ideologies and limiting the power of the modern secular state. It was a remarkable act of intellectual jujitsu.

Moyn’s historical claim about the crucial role of Christian and conservative sponsorship of human rights will no doubt irritate many people. Christians will reject the idea that they came to human rights late. Human dignity and rights have long been part of Christian tradition, going back at least as far as the sixteenth-century scholastics, and, before them, to Thomas Aquinas. By contrast, secular progressives, including, apparently, Moyn himself, are made uneasy by the fact that human rights were originally promoted by their ideological adversaries. Do the Christian associations mean that human rights carry within them the seeds of social conservatism? Are human rights “poisoned at the root”? On both the right and the left, advocates of universal human rights—neoconservatives and internationalists—will resist the idea that human rights are, at bottom, a sectarian project.

This resistance notwithstanding, Moyn’s history is quite sound. True, human rights are part of Christian tradition. But the Church was threatened by the Enlightenment’s version. The French Revolution used the rights of man as a weapon with which to attack the Church. Throughout the nineteenth century, Catholics (and many conservative Protestants) refused to accept the notion that justice was founded upon rights accorded to individuals. (Not without some reason, it must be said. The revolutionaries were not notable for the gentleness with which they treated the Church.) Many papal statements in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries assert the rights of the Church, not the rights of man, most notably the 1864 encyclical, Quanta Cura, and its appendix, the so-called Syllabus of Errors, which condemns, among other things, freedom of speech and religion.

Theologians argue that, in context, these early documents criticize the secular notion that civic life can flourish without proper recognition of God’s authority, which of course means the Church’s authority as delegated by God. They do not really question the substance of human rights, which concern protecting and promoting human dignity. Therefore the subsequent Catholic affirmations of human rights in the twentieth century do not contradict earlier teaching.

There certainly seems to be a tension, however, between Quanta Cura, which rejects as “insanity” the idea that “liberty of conscience and worship is each man’s personal right, which ought to be legally proclaimed,” and Dignitatis Humanae (1965), which demands that the state protect individual religious freedom. At the very least, mid-century Catholic thinkers creatively recast the Church’s earlier positions, making it possible for the Church to adopt and promote the individual rights it once condemned.

Moyn is also persuasive in arguing that the postwar left, the ideological forebears of today’s secular progressives, mostly ignored the human rights project. They tended to treat individual rights as part of the bourgeois political tradition that was to be replaced by a class-based socialist approach. In Europe, it was Christian conservatives who championed human dignity and rights in order to counter the threat of secular totalitarianism.

In a very interesting chapter, Moyn draws attention to the first appearance of the term “human dignity” in constitutional law in Eamon de Valera’s Irish Constitution of 1937, a document that begins with an invocation of the Holy Trinity. Conservative Catholics wrote human rights into the new Grundgesetz (Basic Law) of the new federal republic of West Germany. In the United States, it was Republicans like John Foster Dulles (and also Democrats like Eleanor Roosevelt, but she would not qualify as part of the left in Moyn’s terms) who championed human rights in the emerging international system. At the United Nations, Christians like Malik were instrumental in making human dignity a central feature of the new Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

Not only Christians, of course. As Mary Ann Glendon shows in her important history of the Universal Declaration, A World Made New, the drafting committee had representatives from non-Christian cultures as well. One should not overstate the specifically Christian content of the term “human dignity” as it appears in the Universal Declaration. The drafters famously left the term vague in order to achieve passage. Still, the influence of Christians is unmistakable, and Moyn is right to highlight it.

What has happened since is another twist as surprising as Catholicism’s mid-­twentieth-century endorsement of rights it once condemned. Moyn does not go into detail in this work (he has written about it in his earlier book, The Last Utopia). But he notes that, starting in the 1960s, Christianity experienced an unexpected collapse in Europe. This collapse has “had the tributary effect of making human dignity open to new understandings.” One “new understanding” is the secular, progressive one. It now dominates, having become the primary understanding in international human rights law today. For most contemporary human rights advocates, dignity denotes a radically subjective concept: the capacity of individuals to act consistently with their authentic selves, free from external constraints, including religious traditions. This understanding is quite inconsistent with the objective concept of dignity in Catholic thought, which ties human dignity to eternal, received truths about human nature.

This distinction explains why Catholic and secular human rights advocates disagree on issues like same-sex marriage. In Catholic thought, same-sex marriage cannot be a human right, because it denies objective facts about sexual difference and complementarity and thus violates human dignity rather than promotes it. By contrast, for secular human rights advocates, same-sex marriage is obviously a human right, since it ensures the freedom for individuals to develop and act upon their own ideas of human flourishing, which is taken to be the very essence of human dignity.

The latter, subjective view is clearly winning in the West (though not elsewhere). The ascendancy of this view is so great that secular worries about Christianity threatening contemporary human rights law have little basis. Moyn regrettably falls into this pattern when he departs from his historical analysis to address current concerns. He sees remnants of Christian conservatism in recent European Court of Human Rights decisions rejecting Muslims’ claims for religious freedom. Because the court has ruled against a right to wear burqas and headscarves in ­certain public places and against a right to form Islamist political parties, he suggests that ­today’s Muslims have replaced yesterday’s Communists as the object of irrational Christian fears.

Maybe, but not likely. In two of the landmark cases he cites, Şahin v. Turkey (2004) and Refah Partisi and Others v. Turkey (2003), the European Court did not rule in favor of a Christian state, but of Turkey’s then-secular government. In fact, the two cases turn on the Court’s judgment about the importance of the secular political order. Perhaps the judges were expressing a crypto-Christian conservatism disguised as secularism, but it’s much more likely that, if they had a bias, it was that of a straightforward secularism that excludes religion from public life. Indeed, now that Christianity seems moribund as a social force in Western Europe, Islam may be playing the role once played by an intransigent Christianity in earlier phases of the modern era. Twenty-first-century Islam seems to have emerged as secularism’s true rival in Europe, the religion that threatens to block “progress.” Perhaps the decisions against individual freedom in the cases Moyn discusses do not stem from an atavistic Christian fear so much as a secularist one.

Moyn concludes with reflections about whether contemporary human rights can improve upon Christianity as a moral movement. Institutionally, the religion has been a great success, he admits. But it has been a failure spiritually: It has not improved the souls of people who call themselves ­Christians. As a result of this failure, he says, Christianity has been forced to retreat into “opacity and mysticism.” Human rights must do better. It must actually change things in this world, or else it will be just another futile faith.

These remarks reflect a fundamental misunderstanding—a category error. Christianity is not a moral movement in the way human rights is. It does not promise people a more perfect world; it offers them salvation. That has been the essence of its appeal across millennia and its appeal today—no longer in Europe, perhaps, but across the global South, where Christianity has experienced explosive growth. Human rights, a political program, can never expect to take Christianity’s place in people’s lives. I am reminded of Talleyrand’s famous answer to an earnest revolutionary who asked him for advice on how to start a new, enlightened religion to replace Christianity: “I recommend you be crucified and rise again on the third day.”

Mark Movsesian is the Frederick A. Whitney Professor and director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University School of Law.