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.