Over the past four decades, a cottage industry of important new scholarship has emerged. This work is 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.”
What did Christian human rights mean for Jews? This is not a question that Samuel Moyn considers in any great detail in these essays. In his framing piece, he advises us to read Pope Pius XII’s 1942 Christmas address for what the pontiff said, not for what he did not. Christian human rights were not conceived with Jews in mind, nor did many Christians in wartime Europe believe they applied to the plight of European Jews, apart, perhaps, from converts. Moyn convincingly argues that Christian human rights were the creation of conservative Christians (mainly Catholic in his telling, but with important participation by Protestants) who adapted their beliefs in the dignity of the human person and the core right to religious freedom to a transformed political landscape. In the process, they found that liberal democracy could be an ally, not an enemy, in their fight against secularism, materialism, and, above all, communism. Christian human rights, he concludes, had far less to do with the “inclusion of the other” than it did with “policing the border and boundaries at which threatening enemies” loomed.
In his paper “Personalism, Community and the Origins of Human Rights,” Samuel Moyn argues that a relatively understudied current of Catholic political thought—known as personalism—played a key role in the affirmation of human rights as today’s dominant ideological framework. This may initially appear surprising given the well-known opposition of traditional Catholic social doctrine to the values normally associated with liberalism, modernity and the French Revolution.
However, Moyn’s argument is that Catholic political thought underwent a transformation in the middle part of the twentieth century, developing a distinctive doctrine of human rights on the basis of a concept of the human “person,” which turned out to be crucial for the inscription of human rights within the juridical and political framework of the post-war order. Indeed, Moyn argues that this Catholic rediscovery of human rights took place at a time (the early 1940s) during which other, more progressive, intellectual and political currents were relatively uninterested in them. Thus, he provocatively suggests that the widespread prestige this notion enjoys today has its roots in an essentially “conservative” political project of the mid-twentieth century.
Samuel Moyn’s essay, “Personalism, Community, and the Origins of Human Rights,” makes an important contribution to our understanding of the history of the concept of human rights. I am a philosopher. Though I have a considerable interest in history, I am not a historian. Before reading Moyn’s essay I knew nothing about the developments that he discusses. Discovering the depths of my ignorance might have left me feeling embarrassed and chagrined but for the fact that, as Moyn observes, almost none of his fellow active historians knew anything about these developments either.
In the years since Samuel Moyn’s essay on Jacques Maritain, personalism, and human rights appeared, he has overseen a transformation in the field of human rights history. As he put it in The Last Utopia, he sought to overcome what he calls the “Church history” of human rights, referring to those stories that view human rights “as a saving truth, discovered rather than made in history.” These stories, in Moyn’s view, parallel the uncritical view that Church historians once took of the Catholic Church, and they keep us from analyzing human rights from a critical, Nietzschean perspective. One irony of the project is that Moyn, like Friedrich Nietzsche before him, returns to Church history in a new key. The Catholic and Protestant churches are integral to his revisionist account of human rights consciousness, which, it turns out, has more to do with Christian anti-Communism and post-fascist conservatism than it does with the noble, secularist legacy of 1789.