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Christian Human Rights

Christian Human Rights

Human Rights are often seen as a non or even anti–Christian development. But a new book explores quite how much the development of human rights – rhetorically, philosophically, legally, politically – owes to Christianity. Nick Spencer spoke to its author Samuel Moyn 


Human rights are seen by many people today as somehow an inherently secular enterprise. Where does that impression come from and do you think it’s fair?

They were originally associated with the French Revolution, a strongly anticlerical enterprise (though even the revolutionaries called the rights they proclaimed “sacred” and set up their own new religion). And in our day, since roughly the 1970s, human rights movements in the global north have generally attracted secular people, even if they too sometimes have a nearly religious investment in the principles. What my book tries to show is that in the 1940s, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was propounded, human rights were most often championed by Christians and often as an explicitly Christian project. Even an early human rights NGO like Amnesty International, founded by a fervent convert to Catholicism named Peter Benenson, hardly escaped Christian trappings in the beginning, with its votive candles lit for prisoners of conscience.

Your book starts with Pope Pius XII and focuses primarily on the influence of the Catholic Church and Catholic theology on ideas of human dignity, and rights. This will, I suspect surprise quite a few people.

I was surprised too, and in fact I wrote the book because I was puzzled by why it was the Pope, more than anyone else, who organized his thinking during World War II itself around human rights. Statesmen like Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt sometimes mentioned the concept, but it figured far less substantially in their wartime rhetoric. Puzzles are often opportunities to revise our preconceptions, and I took this one as a reason to research just how Christian mid–century human rights really were.

What do you think brought about the Church’s change of mind here? For most of the previous 130 years it had tended to view rights as a rather regrettable offspring of French Revolution and wayward French philosophy, hadn’t it?

Exactly. But in the late 1930s, on the back of a much longer standing anticommunism, at least some Roman Catholics concluded that far right regimes were also threats. Sometimes utopias for Catholic social morality were possible to achieve, like in authoritarian Austria (before the Anschluss) as well as Portugal and Spain. But in spite of a history of overtures, some Catholics started to conclude that authoritarian states were as risky for the social morality they prized as the liberal states they had spurned and the communist states that always terrified them.

“Human rights” became a way, increasingly popular during and after the war, for saying that limited states deferring to local communities and religious authority would better protect not just individual freedom but the church’s mission to bring moral order. Spain and Portugal remained authoritarian till the mid–1970s, but much of the rest of Western Europe moved to embrace human rights in these conservative Christian terms.

Was this only a Catholic affair? You mention Protestants a bit in the book, especially the Oxford Conference of 1937, but generally they seem to be somewhat behind the Catholic curve on human rights.

Not at all. I structure the book starting with Catholics — and it is true that Protestants had no comparable figure like the Pope — but Protestants are central to the story. Given German Protestant investment in the Nazi project, however, it was really Anglo–American Protestants who take the lead, in companionship and dialogue with Catholic developments.

For example, the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States propounded human rights as the basis of future world order during the war, and the World Council of Churches – which finally united many Protestant denominations in 1947 — also made human rights rhetorically central.

As I see it, however, Americans soon lost interest in the theme (John Foster Dulles, a key figure in the Federal Council, eventually disavowed human rights treaties as America’s Cold War secretary of state). And British Protestants probably never made the language central either. So my attention is drawn to the Continent, where the dominant Christian Democratic parties — in Germany an unprecedented common cause of Catholic and Protestant communities — did most to base their polities on human dignity, with a conservative interpretation of human rights principles.

The link between dignity and rights seems to be absolutely critical to the developments of human rights. Did the former necessarily lead on to the latter? Do you think we could even have got the latter without the former?

No — normally dignity has not implied rights. And conversely, from the French Revolution through the 1930s, rights were not premised (at least explicitly) on something called human dignity. Across Western history, most invocations of dignity – the word literally means “rank” – implied hierarchy among humans, and even 1930s Christian invocations of human dignity were rarely linked to the claim that individuals have God–given or natural rights.

As I show in the book, the first constitutions to made human dignity a leading principle were the conservative Irish in 1937 and the authoritarian Vichy in 1944 — long before the Christian Democratic constitutions after World War II, and the West German Basic Law of 1949. So what I try to do in the book is show what the steps were whereby our commonsense notion that human dignity is the basis of human rights came about.

Christian Human Rights is a book about politics and constitutional law more than philosophy or theology per se, and as such spends quite a bit of time talking about the dominance of Christian Democratic regimes in post–war Europe. This is a political tradition that, I think it’s fair to say, is almost completely foreign to Anglophone – or at least British – audiences. How would you characterise Christian Democracy and what was it about human rights that appealed to CD parties?

Christian Democracy was very progressive historically. On the continent, liberal democracy was a weak tradition, that had failed utterly before World War II, until developments in the politics of Christianity made a place for it (after American guns cleared the table of the other alternatives and first choices).

The price to pay for the role Christianity ended up playing for a great many West Europeans who had once vilified democracy was a very conservative variant of the regime that was supposed to provide safeguards against the feared anarchy that the very idea of “democracy” had long conjured up. The vision of human dignity and human rights that Christian Democrats embraced was one that limited the state (and ruled out the expansionist secular state) in the name of moral values.

In the long run, the risky Christian gambit to accommodate liberal democracy in conservative terms may ironically have played a critical role in the general obsolescence of Christianity in the region, though nobody could have predicted it at the time.

The most famous instantiation of human rights is, I guess, in the UN Declaration of 1948. The genesis of this has obviously been well studied and the role of key figures, especially Eleanor Roosevelt, long recognised. But you make the case for the significant influence of personalism and Catholic thought. How did that find its way in?

We must remember that only fifty–odd states voted on the Universal Declaration in December 1948, and only very few of these were home to majority non–Christian populations. It should not be surprising therefore that, though the document rejected mention of the divine, its rhetoric was redolent of specifically Christian human rights.

Its Lebanese Christian author Charles Malik – deeply influenced by Jacques Maritain, leading Christian personalist after World War II and indeed the most prominent philosopher until our own time to enthuse about human rights – introduced a communitarian vision of the principles. The “person,” unlike the individual, is all over the document, with the term intended to gesture towards a middle point between liberal atomism and communist and fascist totalitarianism. Further, specific articles like the one on the family consecrated a central plank of Christian social morality.

I want to end with a couple of questions that move beyond the timeframe of your book (although you do touch upon them in the conclusion). The first is, what specific effect do you think the Christian genesis of human rights in mid–century Europe had on human rights? You gesture towards this in what you say about Muslims in contemporary Europe but I either didn’t quite follow, or wasn’t wholly convinced by this.

In the long run, I want to suggest, the secular left — mainly working on socialism in the 1940s — took ownership over human rights after the 1970s, and made the concept its own. What is done in its name now bears little resemblance to what its earlier Christian founders had in mind.

I make a specific but narrow case in the last chapter of the book that the fear of threats to Christian democracy against enemies in the Cold War has been updated to apply to Muslims seen as threats to “secular” democracy — a strange legacy for secular proponents of human rights to assume.

Some today contend that there is far more holdover or hidden Christianity than this to contemporary human rights. I do want secular progressives to come away worried that in generally exchanging socialism for human rights they have taken on one of the slogans of their one–time enemies — nowhere more vividly than the United Kingdom where the European Convention was once a Tory project and Churchill said the point of human rights was to preserve Christendom against dissolution.

But I also think that the left has in the meantime made human rights its own, and Conservatives in their opposition to the Human Rights Act today inadvertently acknowledge this transfer in ownership. If there is a Christian legacy in contemporary human rights, it looks minor to me, rather than massive.

And secondly, going back to where we started, why is it do you think the this story of Christian genesis was lost so rapidly? How was it that the secular left managed to capture the story of human rights so completely that today they are seen almost like a non–religious faith position?

Because Christianity itself collapsed, at least in terms of formal membership and religious lifestyles. That is the really puzzling event, but it was too big a puzzle to take on compared to the one I set out to solve, and many people are working on it. Once we understand better how Christianity after 1945 could move so quickly from a golden age to a spectacular freefall, we will understand the conditions in which Christian human rights were forgotten (a few small circles aside), and another conception was built.

Christian Human Rights is published by University of Pennsylvania Press

Image from wikimediaavailable in the public domain.

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

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Posted 2 November 2015


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