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Christian Human Rights (Intellectual History of the Modern Age) Hardcover – August 17, 2015
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"Christian Human Rights is consistently and stimulatingly opinionated. Samuel Moyn maintains throughout his book an excellent and authentic vigor, demonstrating that the genesis of modern human-rights rhetoric can be found in a largely conservative Christian worldview that took shape in Western Europe (as well as in North America) in the 1940s."—Martin Conway, University of Oxford
"Samuel Moyn has emerged as the most important voice on the history of human rights in the twentieth century, and his book Christian Human Rights will be of interest to anyone who cares about human rights in general and the often forgotten context of the run-up to the Universal Declaration in particular."—Jan-Werner Müller, Princeton University
About the Author
Samuel Moyn is Professor of Law and History at Harvard University and author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. He is coeditor, with Jan Eckel, of The Breakthrough: Human Rights in the 1970s, also available from University of Pennsylvania Press.
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1) concept of 'human dignity' and its roots in reinvention of Christianity in 1930s-1940s - previously I attributed the origin of this idea to post WWII period (legacy of Holocaust);
2) idea of 'human personality' as an alternative to individualism, individualized rights (I was not aware of such a distinction);
3) reasons for including religious freedom in the universal standards of human rights, and controversies surrounding the issue of whether religion might become a danger to democracy (historic analysis of recent judgments of European Court of Human Rights was particularly useful, as well as exploration of the original intent behind the Convention - particularly, rejected suggestions of Turkey and Soviet Union)
In Moyn's telling, it was only in the 1930s and 1940s that Christians for the first time embraced the vocabulary of “human rights” in any significant way, and they did so not in defense of individual freedoms or rights as we now think of them but as an essentially conservative reaction to the threats of individualistic liberalism on the one hand and atheistic communism on the other. During World War II and in the immediate post-war period, Moyn persuasively argues, “human rights” talk represented not a progressive political movement but a retrenchment of bourgeois values in the name of saving European Christian civilization from the perils of secular modernity. Whatever “percolations” came before this period, he less convincingly insists, are too murky, diffuse, and inconsequential to be credited in any meaningful way for the birth of human rights. Scholars who argue otherwise, Moyn writes, can only be engaged in a “fictitious” and selective teleological reading of history that does violence to the alterity of the past. “Christian human rights were injected into tradition by pretending they had always been there, and on the basis of minor antecedents now treated as fonts of enduring commitments.”
It was only in 1937 with the drafting of the Irish Constitution, Moyn claims, that “the discourse reached the heights of Christianity.” Before “this period ‘human rights’ had always been identified with the French Revolution and its promise of secular emancipation.” It would take another three decades, he asserts (both in this book and in his earlier work, The Last Utopia), 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 and largely Catholic Christian conservatives, transforming its meaning into a truly progressive and transnational defense of individual liberties.
Thanks to the digitization of libraries, however, it is possible to quantifiably show that Moyn has greatly overstated his argument (insightful though his work might be, it seems to this reader, as an account of how the Catholic Church went from condemning human rights and democracy in the nineteenth-century to championing them in the twentieth). It is simply false to suggest that 1937 marked either the beginning or the height of Christian human rights thinking or speech up to that point.
Leaving aside the fact that earlier ages had ways of expressing the central idea of human rights other than the phrase “human rights” itself (as has been carefully traced by individuals like John Witte and Nicholas Wolterstorff among others), the program Google Ngrams (which can be used to chart trends in language usage over time and which is particularly accurate for the period 1800 to 2000), shows that the original breakthrough in explicit references to “human rights” occurred not in the twentieth but rather in the first half of the nineteenth-century. Between 1830 and 1850, the phrase “human rights” saw an explosion in usage as dramatic as the explosion in references to “humanitarian interventions” (to cite a single example) over the past 20 years. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, “human rights”, even at its lowest usage, filled a greater portion of the English language in print than “humanitarian intervention(s)” has ever filled, not to mention a host of other words and phrases that Moyn would surely acknowledge are today part of everyday speech (e.g., “Native American(s)”, “racial profiling”, “colonialism”, etc.). During the entire decade of the 1930s—the beginning in Moyn’s narrative of “human rights” talk—the phrase “human rights” was in fact less popular in English language publications than it had been in the 1840s. In 1937, Moyn’s pivotal year for the alleged Christian embrace of rights talk, “human rights” was still less prevalent in print than it had been in 1850.
Who, then, were the individuals appealing to “human rights” with such surprising frequency a full century before World War II and the Cold War period Moyn has examined in often illuminating detail? It turns out a great many of them were individuals with radical, not conservative, political commitments who were also fired by a distinctively Christian moral imagination, persons who saw violations to human rights—especially slavery and the political disenfranchisement of women—not merely as a betrayal of the revolutionary promise of the Declaration of Independence but also as an affront to the Gospel of Christ and as national sins.
To cite a single prominent example, William Lloyd Garrison—the radical abolitionist and devout evangelical who did perhaps more than any other single person to force the slavery issue into public consciousness, and whose significance for human rights ideas as well as tactics has been powerfully recovered by Henry Mayer in his book All On Fire—was dragged through the streets of Boston with a noose around his neck by an angry lynch mob for his uncompromising egalitarianism. He would later publicly burn the United States Constitution to protest its pro-slavery provisions. In 1831, the first issue of Garrison’s abolitionist 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 boldly announced that he would be “as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice” in “the great cause of human rights.”
If we leap to the decade of the 1930s, in which Moyn discusses Christian advocacy for human rights virtually exclusively through the lens of conservative figures in positions of political power sitting about tables writing new constitutions (or histories as the case may be), we also find the likes of the journalist, anarchist, and social activist Dorothy Day, who together with Peter Maurin founded the Catholic Workers Movement in 1933 to fight for the rights of the poor using techniques of nonviolent direct action. In her 1952 autobiography, The Long Loneliness, Day would reflect on her conversion to Catholicism in 1927 and the tension she felt throughout the rest of her life between her commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ on the one hand and the institutional realities of the Catholic Church on the other. “I felt that charity was a word to choke over. Who wanted charity? And it was not just human pride but a strong sense of man’s dignity and worth, and what was due to him in justice, that made me resent, rather than feel proud of so mighty a sum total of Catholic institutions.”
Alas, Dorothy Day's name is relegated to a very short footnote in Moyn's book while Garrison's name appears not at all, nor any other radical Christian abolitionist (of which there were many) or champion of women's rights (such as Sarah and Angelina Grimke, who explicitly and repeatedly demanded "human rights").
If Moyn is right to remind us of the violence of history and the problems with any triumphalist or hagiographic "church history" that ignores the morally ambiguous and often shameful record of Christian brutality through much of its history, one cannot help but feel that he has also systematically refused to allow the faith's genuine saints and rights heroes, and the social movements they represented, to complicate his own narrative. What is this if not a kind of double erasure or double marginalization? Persons who were maligned and marginalized in their own lifetimes yet who contributed in powerful ways to remarkable social and political reform movements are now once more marginalized in the name of critical scholarship. If historical anachronism is one way of betraying the dead, as Moyn warns in his book Human Rights and the Uses of History, not so much as mentioning their names or attempting to work out their possible legacies is surely another.
Reading Moyn has been a chastening experience for me, helping me to see where my own "uses of history" have failed to do justice to the actual complexities of the problems he has named. Yet I come away from Moyn's argument with a strong sense that he is engaged in his own highly selective use of history that omits as much as it reveals where the question of the origins of rights is concerned.
Moyn states the key argument of the book in this way: “’Human rights’ came to figure because, in the crucible of reaction before and during World War II when they flirted with authoritarian states. . . Christians learned that the cultivation of moral constraint depended on keeping the spiritual communities that offered their vision of ethical life a home partly free of the state.” (p.11)
Moyn does not view with complete favor the Christian embrace of human rights. “All things considered, the framework that human dignity provided human rights and liberal constitutionalism in and through the war is hard to greet as an uncomplicated breakthrough---if it was not a retrograde concession. Human dignity mainly helped wrest both rights and constitutionalism from the heritage of the French Revolution specifically and from the heritage of political secularism generally.”(p.59)
If he is no sympathizer with the Christian conservatives, Moyn is an acute analyst of their views and activities. He finds the first political expression of the new Catholic stress on dignity in “an unexpected place and at a surprising time: Ireland in 1937.” (p.37) In the Irish Constitution of that year, under the government of Éamon de Valera, dignity was ascribed to individuals rather than institutions.
As Moyn notes, the great French Thomist Jacques Maritain was the principal advocate of the new view of rights. Moyn rightly calls attention to Maritain’s “personalism”, but he does not explain in detail Maritain’s distinction between the person and the individual. Maritain argued that the individual was subordinate to the political community, but the person transcended it. Precisely here Maritain located the basis for rights.
Moyn points out that Maritain’s advocacy of rights met with opposition from a number of more traditionally inclined Thomists. He mentions as an example Charles De Koninck. (p.204, n.43) But he surprisingly fails to note the most famous controversy in Thomist circles over Maritain’s views. Father Thomas Eschmann correctly took De Koninck’s 1943 book to be an attack on Maritain, and he reviewed it in sharply negative fashion. Maritain’s disciple Yves Simon joined the battle with a review of his own, and De Koninck responded to Eschmann with at least equal vigor.
In his desire to highlight the conservative nature of the Catholic rights doctrine, Moyn highlights Maritain’s association with the rightwing monarchist Action Française, though he of course notes that Maritain broke with the group after Pope Pius XI banned it. (See especially p.206, note 59.) But he considerably understates the extent to which Maritain during the 1930s moved leftward. In opposition to many on the French Right, Maritain opposed the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Further, to the outrage of French conservative opinion, he supported the Republic rather than the insurgents in the Spanish Civil War.
Moyn wishes to stress the novelty of the appeal to individual dignity, and he makes a strong case for his contention. He goes too far, though, when he says, “And while it is certainly true that Kant occasionally referenced dignity, none of his political disciples have made anything of this of this fact—and his current philosophical disciples only in the last few years. For that matter, there were no Kantians in Germany of note after World War II. . .” (p.27)
The notion of human dignity is more than an occasional reference for Kant. It lies at the basis of his ethics. In the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, he says: “In the kingdom of ends everything has either a price or a dignity. What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity. . .morality, and humanity insofar as it capable of morality, is that which alone has dignity.”
Further, it is not true that none of Kant’s philosophical disciples made anything of Kant’s notion of dignity until the past few years. Hermann Cohen made Kant’s doctrine of dignity the foundation of his defense of socialism. He criticized the free market for treating human labor as a commodity with a price. Doing so, he thought, contravened human dignity in the Kantian sense. I have no great quarrel with Moyn’s claim, though, that there were no Kantians in Germany of note after the war, although Julius Ebbinghaus counts as an exception.
In his discussion of Gerhard Ritter’s view that Rousseau’s principle of popular sovereignty led to destructive consequences, Moyn seems to me to give inadequate emphasis to an important point. Ritter was a conservative Lutheran historian; but as Moyn says, “Cold War liberals” later expressed similar views. “The perception of ‘Cold War liberals’ that Rousseau paved the way for totalitarianism originated as a commonplace of Christian intellectuals in their interwar reactionary days—and they did not change their minds when circumstances drove them to invent a new kind of conservatism after the war.”(p.123) I do not dispute this: but can we not properly ask, were Ritter and other critics of Rousseau like Jacob Talmon correct in their account of the totalitarian potential of Rousseau’s thought? Is the very posing of this question an expression of a conservative, or at least insufficient leftist ideology, entitling those of more radical views to dismiss the issue out of hand? I do not think so.
Despite these few points of difference, I think that Moyn has made an outstanding contribution to history and recommend his book highly.
 These books include The Last Utopia and Human Rights and the Uses of History. I’d like also to call attention to his "Amos Funkenstein on the Theological Origins of Historicism" in Thinking Impossibilities: The Legacy of Amos Funkenstein. Funkenstein’s Theology and the Scientific Imagination is, in my opinion, one of the masterpieces of historical writing in the twentieth century.
 In his discussion of the Irish scene, he misspells the first name of Father Denis Fahey. (See p.45 and p.191, n.33.)
 See on this Yves Simon, The Ethiopian Campaign and French Political Thought.
 For an exposition of Cohen’s socialism, se Harry van der Linden, Kantian Ethics and Socialism. Mises criticizes Cohen in Socialism, Part IV, Chapter IV.