Christian human rights:

Roots and routes of rights

posted by John Witte, Jr.

Over the past four decades, a cottage industry of important new scholarship has emerged dedicated to the history of rights discourse in the Western tradition prior to the Enlightenment. We now know a great deal more about classical Roman understandings of rights (iura), liberties (libertates), capacities (facultates), powers (potestates), and related concepts, and their elaboration by medieval and early modern canonists, civilians, and common lawyers. We can now pore over an intricate latticework of arguments about individual and group rights and liberties developed by medieval Catholic canonists and moralists, and the ample expansion of this medieval handiwork by neo-scholastic writers in early modern Spain. We also have a deeper understanding of classical republican theories of liberty developed in Greece and Rome, and of their transformative influence on early modern common lawyers, humanist jurists, and political revolutionaries on both sides of the Atlantic. We now know, in brief, that the West knew ample “liberty before liberalism” and had many human rights laws in place before there were modern democratic revolutions fought in their name.

This new historiography has unsettled the conventional historical view that human rights were the products of the post-Christian Western Enlightenment—creations of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, Baron Montesquieu and Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and many others. Human rights, our schoolbooks long taught us, were the mighty new weapons forged by American and French revolutionaries who fought against outmoded Christian conceptions of absolute monarchy, aristocratic privilege, and religious establishment, in the name of political democracy, personal autonomy, and religious freedom. That rights were the keys that Western liberals finally forged to unchain themselves from the shackles of a millennium of Christian oppression of society and church domination of the state was a convenient story a generation or two ago, but it is now clear that the Enlightenment was not so much a wellspring of Western rights as a watershed in a long stream of human rights theory and law that had already drawn in classical and biblical sources, Roman and civil law, medieval philosophy and canon law, early modern Catholic and Protestant law and theology, and more. It is a telling anecdote that, by 1650, every right that would appear in the United States Bill of Rights had already been defined, defended, and died for by various Protestants and Catholics of their day.

Samuel Moyn has further unsettled the conventional view in a series of bold new writings. He focuses on the rise of international human rights norms in the middle of the last century and the “breakthrough” of a global rights movement after the 1970s. Moyn argues that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent international instruments, built on the fundamental concept of human dignity, are the real sources of human rights that now pervade international law and culture. The prior two millennia of rights theories and laws constitute only a “fragmentary” and “ancient history,” he writes in the introduction for this forum, almost “entirely distracting” for modern human rights discussions.

Moreover, Moyn argues, the international human rights movement was not initially a leftist secular rebuke of a Christian faith that had so miserably failed to check the outrages of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. It was, rather, a conservative Christian rebuke of the liberal individualism and libertinism that left so many rulers and citizens without moral constraint or legal responsibility for their neighbors. The early international human rights movement was primarily a Christian communitarian movement that promoted human rights in order to free people to discharge their duties of love toward God, neighbor, and self. It gave institutional expression to the powerful new personalist philosophies of Pius XII, Jacques Maritain, Charles Malik, and other (mostly Catholic) Christians of the day. In Western history, Moyn writes, the mid-twentieth century was “the crucial period for a strong ideological link of Christianity and human rights.” It was only in the 1970s, when this strong link between Christianity and human rights talk was finally broken, that human rights could become ever more universal and liberating for the world.

This is a strikingly innovative and engaging thesis. Moyn has brought to light and life a number of important mid-twentieth-century sources that have not, so far as I know, been part of the conventional discussion of international human rights. He has also done a good deal of work on the historiography of human rights in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, even resurrecting obscure writers like Gerhard Ritter. Moyn is, first and foremost, an historian who wants to get the history of human rights properly told for its own sake. But there is a normative push in his work, too, and not just in his loaded labels of “secular liberalism” versus “Christian conservativism.” He warns contemporary liberals against easy exclusion of religion as an important source and dimension of human rights; he also quietly encourages them to keep their act together in guiding the human rights revolution, lest the “conservative” religious roots and fruits of the movement again go unnoticed or unchecked. Moyn’s story cautions contemporary Christians, in turn, against easy rejection of the human rights paradigm altogether, or of particular rights claims, given that their Christian forbearers proved so critical to the creation of universal human rights.

I do not know the modern literature nearly so well as Moyn does, but allow me a few tentative thoughts in response to his learned and provocative thesis.

First, it’s not clear to me why he says that the history of human rights starts in the mid-twentieth century, or why the events of 1930-1970 are ultimately more crucial today than the revolutionary eras of 1776-1791, 1640-1660, 1555-1598, 1215-1225, or earlier, when monumentally important human rights documents were debated and created. Every serious new historian of human rights over the past century has tended to describe his or her own favorite period to be the real source of human rights, rendering the rest mere prelude or postlude. Leo Strauss picked Hobbes and Locke as the founders of modern rights talk, Perry Miller the New England Puritans, Lord Acton the English revolutionaries. Otto von Gierke picked Johannes Althusius as the rights founder, Josef Bohatec John Calvin, R.R. Palmer the Calvinist monarchomach in France, Scotland, and the Netherlands. Michel Villey saw the font of human rights in late medieval nominalism, Brian Tierney in high medieval canon law, F.W. Maitland in the Magna Carta, Harold Berman in the Papal Revolution. Max Kaser and Tony Honoré saw a veritable rights revolution in classical and Christianized Roman law, while Nicholas Wolterstorff and Benedict XVI pointed to key biblical and patristic texts as foundational. All of these are, in Moyn’s words, “crucial periods” featuring “a strong ideological link of Christianity and human rights.” And all of these periods, including the mid-twentieth century, gave the West, and eventually the world, new norms and theories of rights. But many of the “universal” and “human” rights of today are the “natural” and “constitutional” rights of the past now writ larger. There is no doubt that mid-twentieth century writers introduced new forms and norms of human rights and that modern talk of “human dignity” provides a more generic platform for the universality of human rights than the Golden Rule or the biblical love commands. But every serious community today still roots their rights ideas in far more specific and elaborate ontologies than mere dignity. There is also no doubt that the heady “personalist” philosophies of Pius XII and Maritain can still be inspiring for a human rights advocate or claimant in 2015. But, half a century out, is this material any more relevant, cogent, or inspiring than the stirring declarations of the French, American, English, Scottish, or Dutch revolutionaries, or the powerful rights advocacy of a Marsilius of Padua, Francisco Vitoria, Martin Luther, or Theodore Parker?

Second, it’s not clear to me that the international human rights movement was principally a “conservative Christian project,” let alone a Catholic project. I’m all for lifting up the religious sources and dimensions of human rights—I’ve spent the last quarter century pressing this argument—but Moyn overstates his case. Of course, two Catholics, Maritain and Malik, were part of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. But other main drafters of the Universal Declaration included René Cassin (a Jewish jurist from France) and Peng Chun Chang (a distinguished Confucian scholar from China), and much of the first draft was penned by John Peters Humphrey (a largely unchurched Canadian jurist). And the Commission itself had representation from countries with majoritarian Atheist, Buddhist, Christian, Confucian, Hindu, and Muslim populations. The Commission furthermore drew on bills of rights from around the world, and from the expert opinions of NGOs and sundry scholars and advocates of all manner of profession and confession. Much the same can be said for the drafting and ratification of the great 1966 Covenants on civil and political rights, and on economic, social, and cultural rights. Christianity certainly had an important influence on these monumental international documents, but by no means was this influence monopolistic. Moyn says that we have exaggerated the importance of the Universal Declaration in comparison to other contemporaneous human rights movements. Fair enough. But if we look more broadly at, say, the civil rights movement in America, or the post-war constitutional restorations in Europe, Japan, and the Middle East, it’s harder to see a Christian monopoly on rights talk.

Third, it’s not clear to me that the Christian views that did help to shape international human rights discussions in the last century were all of the high-octave and high-octane personalist philosophies of scholars like Maritain, Max Scheler, Nikolai Berdyaev, or other luminaries whom Moyn brings to light. The juicy anecdotes and quotations included in Moyn’s texts show that this philosophy had influence. But Christianity, at the time, had so much more to offer when it came to rights. Think of the powerful new social, political, and legal teachings and movements of the church inaugurated by Leo XIII, which resurrected and retooled the wisdom of Thomas Aquinas and medieval scholastics and canonists in ways that Maritain never imagined. Think of the many streams of rights talk and rights reform—from John Courtney Murray to John XXIII—that led to the Second Vatican Council and its powerful rights advocacy in Pacem in Terris and Dignitatis Humanae, and the global rights and democratization movements led by the church thereafter. Think of the massive rights activism of Catholics and Protestants in the developed and developing world seeking to protect women, children, workers, migrants, or refugees, and to furnish basic rights to food, water, shelter, education, health care, and vocational opportunities. The Christian contribution to human rights discussions in the last century was intensely diverse in method, perspective, and denominational participation, and it was intentionally directed to both theory and law, and to first, second, and third generation rights alike.

Finally, and relatedly, it’s not clear to me how the “breakthrough” of human rights into a global movement after the 1970s is related to this mid-century story about Christianity and human rights. The upshot of Moyn’s story is that in the later twentieth century “secular liberalism” eclipsed “Christian conservatism,” allowing the human rights paradigm to flourish more universally. The silence, if not silencing, of Christianity and other religious voices in human discussions was certainly evident in the 1970s and 1980s when secularization theories and themes were in full flourish. But today, religion in all its diversity and complexity has returned to the center stage of human rights. Conservative and liberal Christians alike have joined people of various faiths in advocating human rights for all persons and peoples around the world. And the proper protection of religious freedom is increasingly seen as a cause, condition, and corollary of the protection of human rights altogether. We need to hear the wisdom of the mid-twentieth century again as we struggle with religion and human rights anew. But we would do well to dig far deeper into our own traditions in search of rights wisdom.

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