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?
For every phenomenon there is an indefinite, if not infinite, number of both continuities and discontinuities with what came before. To assert continuity, therefore, could not possibly exclude discontinuity altogether—or vice versa. It is only to assert what truth deserves our attention in the mix of overwhelmingly trivial relationships. The only arguments that matter, therefore, are why continuities or discontinuities are important, or interesting, or both.
What is the place of the United States in the history of Christian human rights? This question is worth entertaining because there are many parallels between developments in postwar Europe and postwar America. During the 1940s and 1950s, when Christian Democrats took control of European governments, the American Congress adopted a religious motto (“In God We Trust”), inscribed God onto money and into the pledge of allegiance, and debated a constitutional amendment that would acknowledge Jesus Christ as the guarantor of American liberty.
Sam Moyn’s great contribution to the history of human rights is his careful attention to the meaning human rights assumed in particular contexts. The “human rights” of the 1780s were not the human rights of the 1940s or 1970s. His new work focuses on the WWII era, when primarily European conservative Christians (mostly Catholics) invented the idea of human rights in opposition to fascism and communism—but also to liberalism. The anti-liberal roots of human rights “should deeply unsettle prevailing opinion about what the concept of human rights implied in its founding era,” Moyn writes. It is the corporatist and deeply conservative roots of “personalism” that inspired Catholic support for human rights. Personalism was part of a reinvented conservatism designed to Christianize politics after WWII.
Within historical approaches to questions of natural right, one can approximately distinguish three main tendencies. The first is a whiggish or progressivist tendency to see a gradual development of notions of subjective rights all the way from Ancient Rome until the present day. One main problem with this approach is that it confuses the many examples of subjective natural ius (“right”) to claim or to exercise with a grounding of these same rights in pure individual identity or self-assertion. Equally, it often ignores the correlation of subjective right with conceptions of the enforceability of such right through sovereign political exercise, by projecting backwards a very recent notion of pure “human rights” that are somehow no longer suspended within the aporetic space between the naturally given and the legally enactable.
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.
In signature style, Sam Moyn is poised to launch another spectacular provocation with his forthcoming Christian Human Rights. Building on The Last Utopia and a series of article-length projects, Moyn argues that in the 1930s and 1940s, human rights emerged as a religious, conservative, response to the crisis of Nazi-Fascism. On Moyn’s reading, the European Christian right, not the secular left, was the foremost champion of human rights just before and after World War II. However, appeals to human rights did not emerge from philosophical or theological developments long-in-the-making, much less a sudden awakening to the horrors of the Holocaust. Neither did it signal a Christian embrace of liberalism or the legacy of the French Revolution. Instead, human rights represented a way for conservative Christians to promote a narrow, self-serving, agenda: one that sought to protect the special place of Christianity in Western Europe by whitewashing Christian associations with the recent Nazi-Fascist past.
In January 2013, hundreds of thousands of French Catholics marched down the streets of Paris to protest the “Marriage For All,” a bill introduced by the government a few months earlier to open marriage and adoption to same-sex couples. That Catholics would object to gay marriage was not particularly surprising, but the arguments and symbols that they put forth were more puzzling. Many of the marches were led by a group of young women dressed as revolutionary Mariannes with Phrygian caps and red-white-and-blue streamers. According to the Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the bill revealed that civil law no longer “defended our vision of man,” one anchored in “the understanding of human dignity that derives from Greek wisdom, Judeo-Christian revelation, and the Enlightenment.” One of the leaders of the protests, Tugdual Derville, called for a movement of “human ecology” grounded in human dignity and universalism that would resist the “perversion of human rights” by an “egalitarian ideology founded on the fantasy of autonomy,” as exemplified in the demand for a right to marriage. Others, such as the philosopher Thibaud Collin, urged a return to anthropology, natural law, and a philosophy of the person to combat the démocratisme, the excessive democratic animus, driving the pro-marriage activists.
It has become a truism to say that Samuel Moyn’s work landed like “a grenade” amid common understandings of postwar history. In numerous influential publications, he claims that the post-World War II popularity of “human rights” was not due to the advocacy of enlightened (Kantian) philosophers, liberal democrats, or progressive New Dealers, as many had long believed. Rather, it was reactionary European Catholics who elevated human rights as the buzzword of the era, part of their successful effort to build a conservative, anti-communist, and spiritually intolerant Western bloc. Moreover, Moyn provocatively maintains that Catholics, who spent the 1930s assiduously combating the notion of individual rights and assailing democratic regimes in Austria, Germany, France, and elsewhere, did not embrace human rights out of a heroic change of heart or a recognition of democracy’s intrinsic values. Their flimsy support of these principles stemmed from the conviction that human rights could be mobilized in their decades-long crusade against communism, individualism, and gender equality. Moyn therefore casts a harsh light on Europe’s postwar reconstruction and the era’s human rights renaissance as a whole. The architects of both, so it turns out, were actually the gravediggers of liberalism and equality.
It is a delight to be asked to contribute to this forum on Samuel Moyn’s work on Christianity and human rights. Since my first year of graduate school, Moyn has had a strong influence on how I understand Roman Catholic thought in the twentieth century. “Personalism, Community, and the Origins of Human Rights” first came to my attention when Sam shared it with me in draft form in 2009, and it was this text more than any other that convinced me that any explanation of post-1945 shifts in Catholic thought and activism must begin with the 1930s, if not indeed earlier. I therefore thank both Samuel Moyn and Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins of The Immanent Frame for including me in this forum.
Because I work on Poland as well as Western Europe and on Catholic socialists as well as Christian Democrats, I often find myself sitting in workshops on transnational Christianity suppressing the impulse to step into the role of token shrill voice in the room insisting, “What about Eastern Europe?! What about the socialists and the Communists?! Western European Christian Democracy is only part of the twentieth-century story of Catholicism in Europe—let alone of global Christianity writ large!”
The conceptual history of human rights has received a great deal of scholarly attention over the last decade. Many of the contributions sought to complicate the banal historical narrative that human rights emerged after the Second World War as a universal, liberal answer to the horrors of the Holocaust and totalitarianism. Some historians (including Marco Duranti, Marc Mazower and, of course, Samuel Moyn) have discredited this account as triumphalist and simplistic, or even plainly wrong. However, the intellectual ground from which the idea of human rights stemmed has not yet been fully charted. In his forthcoming book, Christian Human Rights, Samuel Moyn makes an important contribution towards clarifying the genealogy of human rights in the twentieth century. He argues that it was the Christian—and more specifically—Catholic notion of “personalism” that provided the conceptual foundation for modern “human rights,” and identified the crucial era of its development in the late 1930s and early 1940s. This historical narrative embodies also a significant political point: liberals should beware of celebrating human rights as a liberal achievement because they are in fact imbued with conservative, Christian ideology. Nonetheless, he adds, by discovering the legacy of Christianity in the history of human rights, we can “transcend its least persuasive aspects.”