How Can You Exclude The NAACP and Liberal Protestants from Human Rights History?

Taking up Samuel Moyn’s thesis that human rights were “distinctively Christian” when they arrived on the world political stage in the 1940s, my previous post began to make the case that this thesis is more startling the less you understand it. Specifically, Moyn might seem to be, but is not, talking about the very concept of rights that are held by all human beings; nor is he talking about the grounding of such rights in a moral-theological principle such as the Imago Dei. So what is he talking about?

Rather than saddle him with his own immodest counterfactual claim that “our commitment to the moral equality of human beings is unlikely to have come about” without Christianity, I have opted to saddle him with his less immodest empirical claim that we cannot explain the embrace of dignity-and-rights language by mid-century elites without reference to a Catholic personalist intellectual movement of the 1930s and 1940s that located itself in opposition to communism and Enlightenment liberalism.

Moyn emphasizes the impact of European figures such as Emmanuel Mounier, Jacques Maritain, and Pope Piux XII on the appearance of “human dignity” in national constitutions (beginning with the Irish constitution of 1937). But what was happening in the United States during this period? After all, San Francisco was where “human rights” entered 20th century political discourse after the adoption of the United Nations Charter with the backing of the U.S. and its allies.

“Where is America in Human Rights History?” asks a critical commentary on Moyn by Gene Zubovich, who wrote a dissertation on Protestant internationalism and American liberalism from 1940 to 1960. He observes that a powerful Christian impetus for human rights in the U.S. came not from anti-communist, anti-liberal Catholics but from liberal Protestants. The rhetoric and actions of American ecumenical Protestants, Zubovich argues, demonstrated that they “were eager to adopt values that were widely understood to be secular in the 1940s.”

With a few exceptions, historical scholarship on the United States has established that ecumenical Protestants were liberal in most of the ways that mattered in the American context. In the 1940s they supported the growing welfare state, backed church-state separation, protested against racism, backed liberalized sexual practices, and opposed censorship. Fundamentalists, evangelicals, and some Catholic leaders were among their most vocal opponents on these issues.

When ecumenical Protestant organizations such as the Federal Council of Churches (FCC) advocated for human rights, they did so in the context of the African-American freedom struggle (one of the earliest uses of “human rights” occurs in Frederick Douglass’ 1845 autobiography). The FCC maintained an official stance opposing racial discrimination and urging all denominations to work towards non-segregated religious communities and a non-segregated society.

The FCC was one of forty-two nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that had secured an invitation from the Secretary of State to serve as “consultants” to the American delegation at the 1945 conference in San Francisco that was to produce a charter for the United Nations. Otto Frederick Nolde of the FCC was among the representatives, joined by the WWI veteran and former League of Nations consultant Clark Eichelberger, who led the American Association for the United Nations, and James Shotwell, a Columbia University historian, diplomat, and Quaker who represented the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The American Jewish Committee was represented by former appellate judge Joseph Proskauer and philanthropist Jacob Blaustein, who had been urged by President Roosevelt in March 1945 to lobby for human rights in the Charter.

The sociologist and NAACP co-founder W.E.B. DuBois lobbied the State Department to extend an official invitation to the NAACP. As Carol Anderson details in Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955, DuBois was joined by the educator and black feminist activist Mary McLeod Bethune and the NAACP’s executive director and chief investigator of lynchings, Walter White, in pressing for an enforceable international bill of human rights and independence for all colonized peoples. Their ultimate goal was to bring the United States’ systematic violation of black citizens’ human rights before the United Nations.

This intense NGO lobbying took place in the wake of the 1941 Atlantic Charter. Originally issued by Churchill and Roosevelt, the Charter articulated Allied war aims and principles for a “better future for the world” to be realized “after the destruction of Nazi tyranny.” Among these were “sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them” and “freedom from fear and want” for all people. The Charter’s affirmation of self-determination was greeted with great enthusiasm and optimism around the world, particularly in the territories of the colonial powers, and the omission of these principles from the subsequent Dumbarton Oaks agreement fueled the lobbying in San Francisco by the NGOs, which made common cause with the many less powerful countries that sought to limit the Great Powers’ influence over the nascent intergovernmental order.

While the Great Powers could not accept enforceable mechanisms or an internationally supervised transition for colonial states, they did accept an affirmation of human rights and a provision for the creation of the Commission on Human Rights. Although many historians would concur with Walter White’s realist assessment that his and other NGOs had been used by the State Department as “window dressing” to help sell the UN to the American public and Congress, most seem to agree that were it not for the activism of these internationalist, antiracist, labor, women’s rights, liberal Protestant and Jewish groups, human rights would not have been placed at the core the United Nations.

Moyn might respond that this focus on the UN is misplaced. He says that in light of his research, we must abandon or correct the conventional view that “institutions like the United Nations . . . deserve most scrutiny” to the exclusion of “broader culture and ideology, in which Christianity loomed largest in early human rights discourse.” Where I come from, that’s called begging the question. Transwar European intellectual culture may be pivotal to understanding the rise of dignity and rights in European constitutions, but whether it is pivotal to the overall story of human rights is precisely what remains to be seen.

  • Jim Reed

    What is the impact of Christianity on the quest for human rights? After Christianity ends and we follow the human story for a few more centuries, we will be in a better position to look back at history and make that judgment. We can compare the pre-Christian, Christian, and post-Christian eras.

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  • Judith Maxfield

    Will written – thanks.
    When I first listened to the famous MLK inspiring Washington March speech, I was moved. But later after becoming a liberal (actually a socialist) being trained in scripture I saw a video of it again it again and it wowed in a new way. It was a sermon and clear as a bell it was scripture expressed from the heart! It was prophetic passion born of Hebrew and the Gospel. Bernie
    Sanders and Ted Kennedy (on greed) did it also in their moments of passion coming from God. Yes, God’s passion!

    So: You don’t have to wait for history to see Human Rights in America is happening to know the impact of the Protestant ethos on our culture. It grew into the culture wether or not all people were religious. I know this can drive some people crazy, but its true. Religious institutions were never prefect. Life is messy, religion is messy. And yes you can pout all you want and stamp your feet like a child. Some do not get paradox, holding two seemingly opposites together at the same time. I get the idea of the “now and not yet”. The kingdom is now and not yet.

  • Judith Maxfield

    “After Christianity ends”. There you go again. Black and white generalizations are tools of a fool’s errand Jim. I also don’t think chrystal balls are real either.
    Why not concentrate on the here and now of life? The earth needes help. Don’t worry about the future of what will or not happen.

  • Jim Reed

    Christianity will end at some point. I think most would agree with that. It can be enlightening to think about what that time will be like. One thing is people will no longer believe Jesus might come any time now.

  • Judith Maxfield

    Ah yes. You have magical insights, same as what you think religious belief is! You just proved a point. Thank you. It does not matter what other people think. No one can predict the future. You can’t square up this law of Nature.

  • Jim Reed

    I can predict a million years from now people will not still be waiting for Jesus to come. That’s because it is obviously true. It is easy to predict things when you stick to things that can’t be wrong.

  • Judith Maxfield

    Oh my God. Predictions are a dime a dozen and do not indicate truth. You’re talking apples and dragons. No connections my dear.

  • Jim Reed

    In this case it is true. People can’t go on believing Jesus will come any time now for a million more years. They might go 2 or 3 thousand, but there is no way they will go on believing for a million.

  • Judith Maxfield

    So you think the human race as we know it will be there for “a million more years”? Interesting.

    What I am gettting from you is that you seem to be operating from an Evangelical take on a literal view of religion, even when you are against it. However, you want to lump the rest of us into that pail of a nonstarter. If you could get out of that, you want see other ways of interpreting experience beyond a very closed atitude. It is an area of human endeavor many avoids because it takes seeing things new even in secular issues. Life is not easy, but different and scary and messy.

    I do not understand a second coming of Jesus to be a literal experience. The Gospel in the N.T. taken as a total story in four different parts is not interested in the biological Jesus, even though real human events of birth, death, and flesh are used in words. Granted those terms are used as biological events, but as metaphor pointing to us as code for the here and now life.

    So I’m fine with your criticism of literal Christianity as it is now in the U.S. (This is not the form of Christianity rooted in Europe.)

    What bothers me is that many people who judge religion tend to do it in sweeping statements that are so off the wall, even for the secular issues and the use of the English language. As an example, having Sen. Schumer state the Irainians “will never change” is not a statement of fact but of belief. That is sloppy futuristic thinking applied to many difficult issues but totally wrong and harmful for the human race. Our choice is to return to the stone age.

  • Jim Reed

    Saying Iran will never change is most unfortunate when you consider we are the problem there in the first place. We sent the CIA there to destabalize their democracy and start riots so that we could take down their government and install a puppet government that would be favorable to our oil interests. The Iranian people would naturaly be friends with the American people, but our vanity and greed really messed that relationship up, and our concept of American exceptionalism makes it difficult or impossible for us to ever admit the problems are our fault.

    Beyond that, I still think it is fair and even educational so speak about the future time after the end of Christianity.

  • DHFabian

    American discussions about “human rights” are problematic, and probably best left avoided. In short, we’re just not that into human rights. We don’t know what WE consider to be legitimate human rights. In theory, I think, at least most Americans (and esp. liberals) claim to respect human rights as defined in the UDHR.This is false. The UDHR states, for example, that everyone has a human right to basic food and shelter — even the jobless poor, and the unemployable. Obviously, Americans disagree, and ended most of our former poverty relief programs. Even “progressives” have shown no interest in restoring human rights to our very poor. Well, one can’t pick and choose which rights to protect, and for whom, while agreeing to disregard other fundamental rights. This defies the very concept of “universal human rights.”

  • DHFabian

    Times have changed. MLK has been dissected, and his message has been heavily edited and “reframed” to suit our current culture and political ideology. America has completely reversed course when it comes to fundamental human rights. Even liberals have been fine with our current “war on the poor,” which has stripped the poor of a number of fundamental human rights. Sen. Sanders actually reflects the changes in national “mood” to a good degree. He used to speak out powerfully about US poverty and the need to protect poverty relief programs. Once Bill Clinton came along, concerns about the poor were no longer trendy, and Sen. Sanders raised the Middle Class Only banner. More recently, he extends his concern to low-wage workers. Now, consider that this year alone, Dems agreed to virtually end food stamps to the elderly poor and the disabled. How much has Sen. Sanders said about this? Right. This crisis is of no concern to middle class liberals, so Sen. Sanders remains silent.

  • DHFabian

    Doubt it, but it’s true that people have been saying that for a couple thousand years.

  • DHFabian

    Some were saying that back when the Apostles were still alive. Complex issue, though all things considered, I think many people have doubts that the Earth — at least, as a planet with life on it — will still exist a million years from now. So — what relevance does that have to the discussion at hand? Understanding these issues to any degree requires looking beyond the material world alone.

  • DHFabian

    You make a common mistake in thinking that all people see things from your own perspective. You’re trying to address a tremendously complex issue in comic book form, summing it up in a few panels. Can’t be done.

  • DHFabian

    (Or just killing time on a discussion board… But it makes for interesting discussion.)

  • DHFabian

    On Iran, we agree. The American character has been stunningly arrogant and dictatorial, demanding that the world bend to our own culture and ideology. If Americans actually took the time to consider other nations, and the fact that the international community now largely regards the US as the greatest potential threat to all life on Earth, there would be a collective wetting of pants.

  • Jim Reed

    Overall our chances are looking up. We are no longer at risk of a total thermonuclear exchange and all the after effects like nuclear winter wiping out all or at least 99.9% of the world’s population. A nuclear attack now would wipe out a city or a few cities, but would not bring global chaos. Global warming might end up killing dozens of millions of people, but billions will still be left.

    At the same time, there are now different forces that seem to be ready to spread humanity to Mars, and after that throughout the solar system. This would make it extremely unlikely that we will be wiped out in the next million years. In a million years we will probably be spreading to other stars, and that will make humanity almost immortal.

  • Jim Reed

    But still, a million years from now people will not still be waiting for Jesus to return. No matter how complex the religion has become, I feel 100% certain about that. You have to wonder why it is Christians in general can’t seem to see it.

  • Jim Reed

    I think this Iran deal will become a huge problem for Republicans. Obama pointed out the problem a few days ago. If congress kills the deal, the smartest thing for Iran to do would be to keep the deal anyway. They could let Russia and China do inspections, and remove sanctions except from U.S. Iran could sell oil to them. Obama also said he doesn’t know how long he could keep the Europeans continuing the sanctions. They would have a decision to make. Will they side with the Republicans in congress, and go to war with Iran? Or will they side with the deal worked out by Obama and the United States and remove sanctions on Iran like Russia and China and buy their oil and let their businesses do business in Iran? Some European nations might go that way instead of favoring war. Ultimately it ends up being the Republicans trying to convince the rest of the world to go to war, and besides Israel nobody else is following. Everyone else is trading with Iran. That makes the US look pretty foolish, although I am sure the Republicans would never care about something like that. If the Republicans can get one of their people elected president, they just might start their war, and the rest of the world will remember what happened last time in Iraq.

    So as I say, one way or another this Iran deal will become a huge problem for Republicans.

  • Jim Reed

    We no longer care as much about the war on the poor, but I think our priorities changed during the Bush administration and we became more concerned about the war on the middle class. We had been taught the issue was handouts to the poor were bad because they just made them want more handouts. But then our middle class world started falling apart. We were losing our pensions and health care as companies more and more needed that money for those at the top. Then we were losing jobs. Then we were losing homes. By the end of the Bush administration we no longer cared about the poor because we only cared about our own survival.

  • Camera Obscura

    That experiment has been run, it’s called “The Soviet Union”. The “German Democratic Republic” etc.

  • Jim Reed

    The Jesus returning belief has to be the eventual end of the religion. You can’t go on believing it forever, but Christians would have to doubt the belief will eventually kill the religion or the religion would be ended already.

  • Jim Reed

    We are in the middle of a class war here.