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.
Posts Tagged ‘human rights’
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.
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.
When Samuel Moyn talks about Church history, it is usually not meant as a compliment. He has shaken up the field of human rights history with his pointed criticisms of the historiographical fallacies to which many of its practitioners fall prey. The worst offenders are precisely Church historians, either in a figurative (like Jonathan Israel) or literal sense, those who succumb to “the general flaws of teleology, tunnel vision, and triumphalism.” Now, with his new book Christian Human Rights, Moyn delves straight into the heart of historiographical darkness itself, challenging the pieties of Christian (as well as some leftist) evangelists. The results are very impressive: Moyn writes intellectual history on a global scale, complete with archival finds and a subtle grasp of theological concepts.
A month before, the tide at Stalingrad had turned against the Germans. Just two days before, General Erich von Manstein had abandoned his efforts to relieve the Wehrmacht’s doomed Sixth Army. But there was no telling that the extraordinary German strength in the war so far would now ebb quickly.
The Americans had formally entered the war a year before, but the Allies would not reach mainland Italy for another nine months, or make it to Rome for a year and a half. The pope—Eugenio Pacelli, or Pius XII—was in dire straits. His relationship with Benito Mussolini had long since soured, and he was a prisoner in his own tiny Roman domain.
As for the Jews, the worst victims of the conflict, millions were dead already; the victims at Babi Yar had lain in their ravine for more than a year; Treblinka, the most infernal death camp, had come on line six months before and already completed much of its grim work.
Officially, of course, the Catholic Church and its leader were neutral, and didn’t play politics. Many of his flock were to be found on both sides of the war.
The legal status of corporations as fictive persons is well-lampooned in the bumper sticker that reads, “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.” As entities with legal status as persons, corporations do not bleed or feel pain except metaphorically, for example, when they hemorrhage cash, perform anemically, or suffer from an economic downturn or shortage of labor. Nevertheless, as fictive persons recognized by law, corporations are building blocks of commerce, government, and religion in the United States, and they have operated as organizing mechanisms in Western society since ancient Roman times. Of course, shielded by legal protection, corporations have done great harm—think of the Royal Africa Company and its role in stimulating the rapid growth of slavery in the Atlantic world in the eighteenth century. Accordingly, in the United States, constitutional amendments and labor and civil rights legislation have been enacted to constrain or outlaw numerous forms of corporate activity deemed unsafe or unfair.
Hans Joas’s Faith as an Option is primarily concerned with debunking two myths: first, the idea that modernization—advances in technology and the sciences—renders religious belief obsolete; second, the argument that secularization leads to moral decay. Joas, a leading European social theorist, is more than aware that criticisms of these claims are hardly new—contemporary scholars no longer prove keen to establish a law or rule connecting modernization and secularization, and there seems to be little or no correlation between societies with higher rates of atheism and moral decline. Instead, Joas’s study mainly aims to provide a series of illuminating explanations for why these views captured the imaginations of so many for so long.
Mark Fathi Massoud, Assistant Professor of Politics and Legal Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, examines the trials and tribulations of law in Sudan in his new book, Law’s Fragile State: Colonial, Authoritarian, and Humanitarian Legacies in Sudan. In an interview with Jadaliyya, Massoud speaks about his motivation to uncover the essence of how law—and lawlessness—operate in the context of fragile states. Massoud also elaborates on his topic in a blog post at the Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa Blog.
Earlier this summer, The Immanent Frame published an off the cuff exchange about the State Department’s new initiative to engage religious communities in US diplomacy. Conversation and critiques are still going strong; Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, an original contributor to “Engaging religion at the Department of State,” has penned a commentary for Al Jazeera America in which she critiques US faith-based engagement abroad as a violation of the separation of church and state.
This Wednesday will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s landmark “I have a dream” speech and the 1963 March on Washington. In commemoration of the great moment in American civil rights history, scholars and commentators have dedicated much of this past month to recognizing Dr. King’s legacy. At Religion News Service, Yonat Shimron and Adelle M. Banks offer insights from academics of religion and discuss the speech’s continued relevance.
As several contributors to this forum have pointed out, legal provisions regarding religious freedom do not emerge from history fully formed and self-interpreting. At their core, they are iterations of words and texts, (re)produced and (re)authorized by different persons or groups for different purposes. What they mean depends on local facts.
This contribution expands upon this observation by offering a different story about drafting religious rights in a particular place and time. I will show the ways in which religious rights, as rhetoric, serve not as apolitical instruments, but as indicia of political alliances; not as generic, universalizable norms, but as specific formulations of norms suited to particular moments and in service of particular political programs. In this version of the story, religious rights, rather than conclude conflict and harmonize societies, signpost disagreement.
The New York Review of Books’ blog recently posted a debate between women’s rights groups and Human Rights Watch entitled, Women and Islam: A Debate With Human Rights Watch.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) recently released a new guide, Partnering with Religious Communities for Children, intended to support UNICEF staff and other child rights organizations build effective partnerships with religious communities, in particular religious leaders, networks, and local faith communities.
Like a good movie, the story of international religious freedom offers something for everyone. It pits cowardly oppressors against heroic saviors. It is a story of the triumph of international law over those who fail to adhere to global norms and standards. It is a story of secular tolerance versus violent religion. And today especially, it is a story of the need for the U.S. government and its friends to “convince” others—particularly Muslims—that they should endorse a particular model of religious liberty as a template for organizing and democratizing their politics and societies.
Lila Abu-Lughod and Anumpama Rao—editors of Women’s Rights, Muslim Family Law, and the Politics of Consent, a special issue of SocialDifference-Online—sat down for a conversation with the editors of Jadaliyya.
In its Room for Debate forum, The New York Times recently published a debate on the state of religious freedom in the United States.
The global feminist blog Gender Across Borders, in partnership with Violence is Not Our Culture: the Global Campaign to End Violence Against Women in the Name of ‘Culture,’ is seeking writers for an upcoming series on gender-based violence, culture, and women’s rights. The series will run on October 27th and 28th, and will feature personal narratives, profiles, book reviews, journalistic articles, analytical pieces, critical essays, and editorials.
Saba Mahmood is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and whose work raises challenging questions about the relationship between religion and secularism, ethics and politics, agency and freedom. Her book Politics of Piety, a study of a grassroots women’s piety movement in Cairo, questions the analytical and political claims of feminism as well as the secular liberal assumptions on the basis of which such movements are often judged. In the volume Is Critique Secular? she joins Talal Asad, Judith Butler, and Wendy Brown in rethinking the Danish cartoon controversy as a conflict between blasphemy and free speech, between secular and religious world views. Now, Mahmood is working on a comparative project about the right to religious liberty and minority-majority relations in the Middle East. We spoke over breakfast in New York City.
A post at the New York Times philosophy blog “The Stone” reflects on the differences between religious and secular underpinnings of human rights. The author, Anat Biletzki, critiques the argument that human rights are impossible without religion, or, particularly, belief in God. Instead, she asserts that the secular basis for human rights is in fact more faithful to humanity than religious justifications, which she defines as rooted in the authority of a superhuman creator (i.e., God) rather than in the value of the human.
Must human rights be grounded in a religious or metaphysical worldview in order for them to be understood and implemented globally? Or should they be developed based on broad consensus, divorced from religious grounds? These are the questions that open Grace Kao’s new book Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World. Kao situates herself between these two positions, developing a rationale for human rights that is based on her retrieval of particular elements of the most prominent methods for justifying human rights approaches.
April 3rd marks the first day of the 2011 Carter Center Human Rights Defenders Forum. The theme for this year’s forum is Religion, Belief, and Women’s Rights. The formal conference on April 5-6 will be webcast live on the Carter Center’s website, and select portions of the conference will be live tweeted by Carter Center staff. Follow the Carter Center’s twitter feed @CarterCenter and join in the discussion at #Women’sRights11.
Early 2011 will mark the first US television broadcast of the critically acclaimed documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Released in 2008, Pray the Devil back to Hell awakened a global audience to the work of the women of Liberia in bringing about peace in their country after a fourteen-year civil war. The film chronicles Christian and Muslim women’s combined efforts to peacefully protest the war, demonstrating that women are active participants in peacebuilding work and that religious traditions and beliefs can be a vital resource for peace and reconciliation.
In a recent Newsweek article, “Saint Sarah,” Lisa Miller chronicles Sarah Palin’s iconic status among evangelical Christian women in the United States, noting that Palin blends talk of politics and faith in a way that resonates among her “mama grizzly” followers. . . . What I find fascinating in the “Saint Sarah” piece, and what I will explore over the summer in this blog, is the ways that the stories we tell—about self, nation, human rights, and other things we hold dear—often reveal a complicated intermingling of the things once characterized as distinctly separate: church and state, religion and politics, spirituality and human rights.
Though currently on sabbatical at the University of Zürich, Richard Amesbury teaches religious and philosophical ethics at the Claremont School of Theology, where he is is involved in establishing a new School of Ethics, Politics, and Society. He is the author of Morality and Social Criticism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) and Faith and Human Rights (Fortress, 2008), as well as numerous articles. His interests reach across many themes and fields in which the concept of “religion” is constructed and mobilized, from human rights law to civil religion to the New Atheism.
At the Guardian, Mervyn Thomas contextualizes the recent Chinese government crackdowns on Christian worship.
Talal Asad and Abdullahi An-Na’im both stand at the forefront of the challenging and constructive exchange taking place today between European and Islamic traditions of political, legal, and religious thought. At a recent event organized by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, the two scholars traded questions and criticisms concerning the concept of human rights. Moderated by José Casanova, the discussion addressed the intrinsic limitations and historical failures of the language of human rights, as well as its formidable capacity to challenge autocratic and state-centric distributions of power, creating openings for democratic contestation and political self-determination. The following is a short excerpt of the conversation, which is available for download in its entirety here (pdf). You can see video from the event at here & there.
John Milbank, in his recent essay “Against Human Rights” (PDF), contends that Christian thought demands a notion and practice of justice as objective “right order,” and resolutely does not provide the theological basis for a doctrine of human rights qua the subjectively grounded rights of the claimant, as Nicholas Wolterstorff argues in Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton UP, 2009). A political order grounded solely in subjective rights is, for Milbank, anathema to Christian justice.
In short, I agree with Wolterstorff that, while there is no theory in this extremely diverse array of biblical texts, readers may “nonetheless sense a certain rhetorical unity pervading the great bulk of these writings.” We just disagree about what this narrative unity is. What if we said that the “red thread” (so to speak) which unites these tales is not a “frame” guaranteeing rights but rather the clear and repeated indication that humanity is faced with traumatic contingency, surprise, and uncertainty, and that they are at times (for this very reason) subjects of remarkable, even Promethean moments of invention?
At first glance, Justice is an internecine wrangle between theists (or better put, Christians). On the one side is Alasdair MacIntyre and his crowd, with their passively pious, neo-Aristotelian foundationalism. “We are waiting not for a Godot but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict,” MacIntyre concludes in his After Virtue, and I assume he is waiting still, whoever happens now to be sitting in the chair of St. Peter. On the other side, those like Wolterstorff who hope that Christianity might still have something to say in contemporary conversations about politics, justice, and human rights. Kozinski and Smith take up this wrangle in various ways. But it is a wrangle that I, standing over here, view with some detachment. What do I care whether Christianity can reconcile itself with a theory of inherent rights?
If it is indeed the case that “the social ontology of rights talk generally assumes that, at bottom, the kind of relation between social entities is conflictual or competitive,” then I dissociate myself from that generality. No guilt by association here; I don’t hang out with Hobbes. The agonistic social ontology that James K.A. Smith attributes to me is not mine. To affirm natural inherent rights is not to presuppose such an ontology, nor does my account of such rights presuppose such an ontology. Nothing Smith says shows anything to the contrary.
It does certainly seem, as Simone Chambers points out in “Do good philosophers make good citizens?“, that Dr. Wolterstorff ultimately asserts, rather than adequately demonstrates, that only theistic belief can guarantee human rights in perpetuity for all humans. Why? I think it is because he knows that there is ultimately no philosophical demonstration possible for such a conclusion. […]
Nicholas Wolterstorff’s calm, careful, humble response to my posts might make me look like an overly pugilistic polemicist. But I think he’s just from a different school of pugilism. (As a Canadian and long-time hockey player, I think pugilism is a great way to spend a Friday night, with beers afterward.) Wolterstorff is a careful student of the “bob and weave” school of philosophical polemics, turning ill-advised haymakers into merely glancing blows. I, on the other hand, tend to be a student of the George Foreman school of philosophical polemics (and frequent user of his grills to boot!): I’m easily sucked in by rope-a-dopes. Why stop now?
I want to re-emphasize the structure of my discussion about secular accounts of human rights. The project of trying to ground human rights is the project of trying to find what it is about human beings that gives each and every one a dignity sufficient for their possessing human rights.
I’ll close my contribution to this symposium with some broad brush strokes by suggesting that Wolterstorff’s project can be seen as a powerful, persuasive version of a Whig Calvinism, which, instead of ending up with a neoconservativism, ends up with a theistic liberalism.
Perhaps one might argue that Justice: Rights and Wrongs is not simply a contribution to a conversation among philosophers. It is also a contribution to a public dialogue about human rights and thus a conversation among citizens. Here one might argue that because human rights are the sorts of things that are instituted and enforced by governments, we need to approach the conversation from the point of view of what we could agree upon, and not from the point of view of establishing what we think is the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Wolterstorff (not unlike Jeff Stout) sometimes assumes that commitment to liberal democracy is the only way to care about justice; so a critique or rejection of the paradigms of liberal democracy or rights-talk is seen as a lack of concern for justice per se. Thus when he sketches the influential narrative of MacIntyre and Hauerwas, he narrates it as “a hostility to justice and rights”—taking it to be the case that an opposition to rights talk is equivalent to an opposition to justice per se. That seems clearly false to me (to adopt a Wolterstorffian locution!) unless one sets up the matter in a way that simply begs the question.
Everywhere in Justice Wolterstorff’s interest in theological and philosophical history collides with his desire for syllogism, or for causal necessity, or for foundational or axiomatic truth. He is always rushing headlong toward the moment when, blessedly, “it proves impossible not to continue” toward the terminus of thought—indeed, for the moment when we can lay down thinking altogether—even if, lost in the rush, the relief of having arrived at a foundation obscures from the mind its having reached a parallel conclusion, like the sanction of state violence.
It seems to me that what worries Wolterstorff about “right order” theories of justice (i.e., communitarian accounts) is that they leave justice at the whim of a particular story, a particular community, and thus leave the wronged without recourse, without a basis for appeal. If rights are going to “work”—that is, if they are going to provide an extra-story and supra-community criterion for naming wrongs—then the worth of the human person needs to be grounded in some feature or property that is not conditioned by a particular story and which is a feature of all human beings.
Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs is a unique—and uniquely readable—book. It skillfully constructs a case for the continuing force of political discussions of rights, properly understood not only in their “possessive” articulations, but also more broadly as social articulations of “rights against” others in pursuit of life-goods. The point of this rather subtle turn is to take on those who would reduce rights discourse to a kind of flattened and shallow individualism, as well as to argue against modern eudaimonist thinkers who would reject the language of rights altogether. […]
Why should we conclude that God’s love for human beings takes the form of attachment love as opposed, for instance, to the agape love dominant in the Christian tradition? Why should we conclude that God loves us at all? And if God and God’s love exist, why should we conclude that God loves every human being equally?
Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Justice: Rights and Wrongs is a profoundly ambitious book. His normative aspiration is nothing less than “speaking up for the wronged of the world” by reorienting contemporary thinking on rights and justice. … But what about the practice of liberal democracy? What would it mean to govern so that members of a society can “enjoy the goods to which they have a right”? Justice is not a book of practical application, but it is clearly on Wolterstorff’s mind.