Christian human rights:

Christianity, contemporary legacies, and the critique of secularism

posted by Samuel Moyn

My last post took my response up to the twentieth century invention of “Christian human rights.” This one engages with crucial details about my case for continuity in that era before turning to the major challenge several of my commentators offer concerning my decision to stress discontinuity thereafter: if I am correct about the endurance of Christian politics in and through the inception of universal human rights, could it really be the case, as Paul Hanebrink asks, that “the decline of Christianity as a social and political force in 1960s Europe falls like a curtain” across the stage?

I begin with a series of gifted scholars commenting on my treatment of my own preferred era of focus in the 1930s and 1940s—rather briefly, because their arguments are so compelling and true. As I noted in my original post, Giuliana Chamedes and James Chappel, once nominally my students, have long since become my teachers, along with Udi Greenberg and Piotr Kosicki. I am a great admirer of Or Rosenboim’s compelling forthcoming study of international thought in the 1940s. And Gene Zubovich’s exciting dissertation work will help augment the burgeoning study of ecumenical Protestantism and its progressive contributions to American politics at the time. All of their posts correct mine in fundamental ways, thank goodness. In scholarship, at least, I am for supersessionism.

Chappel is on the mark in stressing precedents for Christian human rights before 1937—my point was only about the elevation and intensification of the rhetoric at that date, which basic usage charts now graphically confirm. More than I let on, I agree with Chappel’s claim that Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular sponsored various political options throughout the period. Kosicki documents this contention in action, charting the legacies of personalism in Eastern Europe, where it also took on conservative and non-conservative guises alike. Equally important, Chamedes plausibly says that Americans, like civil society engagement, count for much more in the story than my posts intimated—I most definitely concur—while Greenberg is also absolutely right to insist on more room for Protestants than the posted materials allowed. Zubovich combines the emphases on America and Protestantism, stressing the liberalism rather than conservatism of American participants in ecumenical Protestant discourse. Rosenboim offers some overlapping observations while also emphasizing the need for an account of why the personalist reinvention of human rights proved plausible to its contemporaries. Christian Human Rights tries to cover all these angles a bit better than the preliminary materials on this blog, but all six authors have made unique and fundamental contributions that take our understanding far beyond my rudimentary intuitions.

I should add that I have been most preoccupied not with how various options were once put on the table across the 1930s and 1940s, but how the table was ultimately set for the conservative hegemony of Christian Democratic and Cold War politics. After 1945, even the renowned open-endedness of the Stunde Null—the “zero hour” across Europe when the slate seemed blank and everything appeared possible—has to be reconciled with the realities of continuity through the war. If conservative “Christian Democracy” was the unanticipated harvest of the fields of contentious ideological and practical experience across an era of conflict, then it is legitimate to stress that in the end it became the victorious embodiment of new concepts such as dignity, personalism, and rights. In his remarks on the era, John Witte claims so many contributors to and versions of human rights as to make clear identification of their political spirit impossible, but this is unfair to the evidence, in my judgment. Complexity in history does not mean that nobody wins or loses.

Zubovich’s terrific post remarks on how strange it is to indict Christians for conservatism when Americanists in the train of David Hollinger’s already classic work now look to mainline Protestants, before the unintended self-secularization of their ilk and the regrettable evangelical deluge combined to set the terms of our own time, as the inventors of contemporary liberalism. Zubovich makes the absolutely fair point that, especially when it comes to racial equality, many of those Americans participating in ecumenical Protestantism in the 1930s and 1940s were well-recognized as critics of enduring hierarchies, whether racial ones at home or colonial ones abroad. I might wonder just how it was that America entered a Cold War so vigorously within a few short years, if the balance of the evidence were as clear as Zubovich makes out. As in Hollinger, Zubovich’s redemptive portrait seems as much motivated by nostalgia for American liberalism as by concern for its limits when defined and led by longstanding Protestant elites. But not being an Americanist, I defer to their expertise. I will simply mention by way of explaining my focus that my account turned on study of onetime human rights activist John Foster Dulles (who simply drops out of Zubovich’s account after wartime) and above all of his reception by dean of German historians Gerhard Ritter, my book’s main Protestant protagonist. The vigor of such figures, like that of the Christian realist Reinhold Niebuhr (allegedly unrepresentative, Zubovich insists), convinced me that conservatism proved the consequential story. But I am happy to stand corrected on this point, and will eagerly await even more from Zubovich and others. (Some forthcoming work by Jane Dailey also stresses the racial liberalism of Protestant ecumenicals.) It remains necessary to explain how “the vital center” won out as Cold War liberalism was born, of course, and a lot will turn, I think, on crafting a historiography that self-consciously integrates American internationalists in their international networks, as Justin Reynolds is doing in parallel.

Now let me return to Carlo Invernizzi Accetti, whose omission of the prior basis of the fusion of natural law and natural rights I mentioned in the last post. For it also has to be stressed that, in an almost equal and opposite way, Accetti may go too far in saying that in the 1940s Maritain was powerless to weld liberal human rights to a conservative natural law base (other than by falsely suggesting it was possible to do so). Accetti seems to be committed to the endurance of two eternal positions, secular liberal and Christian illiberal, and after 1945 human rights just provided new terms for them to continue their contest. While this is not entirely unconvincing, I find it much more interesting to emphasize the mutual adjustment or even fusion of the two positions in the period.

Maritain incontestably liberalized Christianity, not least by allowing it to wield what had hitherto been a signature liberal language, by recalling (as discussed in the last post) that Christians had invented it before the vile thievery of the French Revolution occurred. And since World War II, there just has been too much Christian human rights discourse, down to and beyond John Paul II (who indeed helped make the whole notion famous), to dismiss it as a smokescreen. Rather, I think it is what it says it is: a Christian version of human rights that corrected prior conservatism through liberal redefinition, but on condition of altering prior liberalism through conservative and communitarian redefinition.

European Christians having lost some important and favored options for embodying natural law without modern concessions, Maritain did crucial work—precisely by incorporating rights—in allowing them to support liberal modernity less reluctantly. More troublingly, liberals, who had rarely organized their politics around human rights per se, invented a Cold War liberalism that reconciled their views with religious conservatism, with many important consequences. In short, human rights were among the means through which Christians managed to preserve old commitments—a critique of individualism, materialism, and secularism, as well as support of various enduring social hierarchies—in radically changed circumstances. Even in America, which (unlike Western Europe) saw liberalism and conservatism define the line between bipartisan electoral forces, a similar compromise occurred. Cold War liberalism was a mainstream hybrid that is so important to reconstruct, because it still marks our times, many decades later.

That brings me, finally, to the difficult problem of continuity since the founding era of Christian human rights—since several commentators question my willingness to let a powerful continuity from the deep past through the 1940s simply disappear thereafter, as if it had never been. Along with Kosicki and Witte, Paul Hanebrink and Camille Robcis express this concern in different ways.

Of course, facts about the waning of Christian hegemony in Western Europe in our time have little bearing, just as critics of secularism might insist, on the common suggestion that “secular” forms of thinking and practice that ultimately have Christian origins, a claim to which I am very open. Secularism itself must have come from Christianity—there is nowhere else for it to have come from. It was neither “rise of modern paganism” nor a clean break due to immaculate conception. As I see it, crucial to that more “structural” critique of secularism is the problem of whether concepts and practices can ever win independence of their congenital surroundings. Why isn’t it possible? Sovereignty was originally a theological concept, to be sure, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it still is one.

Yet however that raging debate goes, it seems to me wrong to conflate it with the only distantly related issue of the self-secularization of Protestantism after World War II in the transatlantic sphere and the collapse of Roman Catholic affiliation and practice in the global north. Those are real occurrences that have to be explained no matter the extent to which the structural critique of secularism is plausible. Even if everyone is a fallen Christian structurally, it still matters that no one goes to church. It could be we are all (barely) secular Christians in our thinking and practices, but it would not follow that we have then explained why Christianity as an enduring and powerful set of formal beliefs and institutionalized practices waned so quickly.

It is Robcis who helpfully distinguishes between historical and structural versions of secularism, and on analogy to Dominick LaCapra’s similar distinction when it came to trauma, I worry about underemphasis today on the historical and overemphasis on the structural—for as with trauma, it seems easy for observers to endow the former with the enduring if not eternal repetition of the latter. Given the drastic changes at the more formal and institutional level in Western Europe (religious observance, marriage rates, etc.), it may even be that, someday soon, Friedrich Nietzsche’s madman is proved right when he surveys the European landscape and asks rhetorically: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

In hopeful view of this possibility, in fact, my work is animated by a sympathetic concern with the power but also with limits of the contemporary critique of secularism. That is why I try to show the significance of the fact that Christian human rights were bound up with an older critique of secularism d  eployed on behalf of Christianity itself, and why indeed some of the discriminatory crimes of secularism even today may paradoxically have their roots in a human rights propounded to keep Christianity safe in its own homeland.

By contrast, a view that casts everything as the necessarily eternal recurrence of Christianity—that knows in advance that Christianity can never end—risks homogenizing rather than distinguishing. Such a framework, indeed, grants Christianity the very endurance and omnipresence that it most desired for itself. Why go that far? None of the original critical masters of suspicion ever did, because they were surer of their own hope in an eventual secular future.

All this said, clearly I have skirted too many difficulties in sticking to the era of Christian resurgence in European politics and culture just after World War II, without carefully studying its fate. Contrary to Greenberg, then, if there are objections to human rights politics today, it is not generally the case that I think they are due to their mid-century form, except to the extent that Cold War liberalism remains alive and well. Hanebrink’s fantastic preview of his own forthcoming scholarship on the invention of Judeo-Christianity as the new embodiment of the critique of secularism after World War II and its presence today in the discourse of the European far right is exciting for promising an original intervention on this problem and goes furthest in intrepidly drawing lines of continuity and discontinuity between midcentury past and present.

If I overemphasized the extraordinary shifts in thought and experience in the Western European landscape in the last fifty years, in sum, it was for historical but also for prophylactic reasons. For all secularism’s sins, it is easy to forget that secularism itself was among Christianity’s chief enemies; meanwhile, it is the loss of a credible secularism today in critical circles—as if its defective versions were the only imaginable kind—that seems most to lay behind the ire of its most unforgiving opponents. But I realize that faith in secularism is not particularly justifiable to those who do not already believe.

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One Response to “Christianity, contemporary legacies, and the critique of secularism”

  1. I appreciate Sam Moyn’s generous comment about my own work in this area, but am surprised he ascribes to me a motivation of nostalgia. My own outlook is as secular as his own, so far as I can see, and the book of mine he has in mind even complains (in an essay called “Enough Already”) that academia has had rather too much Christianity, and ends with a fairly sharp argument that even Reinhold Niebuhr was severely limited by his anti-secularism! But the point is surely to get the history right (a task Sam and I share, of course), and motives are in any case not the same as warrant. Sam’s new posting warrants a number of important amplifications, wonderfully welcome, no matter what his motives.

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