Do We Owe Human Rights to the Christian Right?

Historian Samuel Moyn says the history of human rights as we know it dates only to the 1970s.


Conservative Christian activists herald resolution by the United Nations Human Rights Council.

This is not a gloss on a passage from the Book of Revelation but something that actually happened recently. The non-binding resolution on “protection of the family,” which was introduced by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, affirms “the natural and fundamental group unit of society” and urges UN member states” to “strengthen and support families.”

To observers at both ideological poles, this resolution is most significant for what it does not say. A majority of Council members rejected a reference to the “various forms of the family”—favored by Western European states, the U.S., and South Africa, among others—in favor of the family. The Council also rejected an amendment, introduced by Norway, observing that the primary concern of international law is the rights of individuals, not collectives, and that individuals need protection from violations of their rights perpetrated within families.

Resolution A/HRC/29/L.25 is, in the words of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, or C-Fam (designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an “anti-LGBT hate group”), a “big win for traditional family.” It echoes the 2013 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith colloquium on the “complementarity of man and woman,” which Pope Francis opened by declaring that all children have “a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother.”

This colloquium was part of a longstanding Vatican discourse of the “natural family,” which is itself now part of an interfaith movement, explored in this space previously, that is appropriating the language of human rights for patriarchal and heterosexist Christian ends.

What are we to make of this curious marriage of anti-egalitarian values with the familiar language of human rights? It turns out that this marriage may have begun over 75 years ago. In fact, the very notion the inherent dignity and worth of the person as a foundation for universal rights may have distinctively Christian and, in particular, Catholic, sources.

That, at least, is the view of Samuel Moyn, a young, prodigious, and widely-cited modern European intellectual and legal historian at Harvard Law School (formerly in history at Columbia) who has emerged as a leading provocateur within the relatively new academic field of the history of human rights.

With his 2010 book, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Moyn staked a bold and controversial claim in this territory. In it he trenchantly attacked a conventional narrative that traces the lineage of human rights through the French and American Revolutions to seventeenth-century natural rights theory—and further to Roman law and Greek, Judeo-Christian, and Stoic ethical universalism.

This popular history underscores continuities between the work of today’s human rights defenders and previous citizens’ struggles for the rights of women, workers, immigrants, and formerly enslaved and colonized peoples, placing Malala Yousafzai shoulder to shoulder with Frederick Douglass and Mary Wollstonecraft.

In Moyn’s narrative, human rights are no older than Generation X.

The eighteenth century discourse of droits de l’homme or “rights of man,” he argues, was not a human rights discourse because it was designed to legitimize the national sovereignty of the new revolutionary states rather than limit the national sovereignty of all states. Although the 1940s brought an annunciation of human rights in the United Nations Charter—with its faith in “fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women”—and in the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this message “fell on deaf ears” among broader publics. It was a generation later that human rights was reborn as a “utopian” mass movement that “emerged in the 1970s seemingly from nowhere” in reaction to a widespread sense in the West that the credibility of prior utopian projects—Marxist, anti-colonialist, and anti-communist—had exhausted themselves.

Not content to delete at least two centuries from the conventional narrative of human rights, Moyn also wants to revise the received conception of human rights as a multicultural and ecumenical, if not secular, project. And that brings us back to Vatican City.

Moyn has explained that while his larger project in The Last Utopia was to “postpone the full-fledged triumph of human rights to our own era,” he also wanted “to show how distinctively Christian they were at the time of their 1940s annunciation,” a task that is taken up in Christian Human Rights (forthcoming from University of Pennsylvania Press). His argument is now being debated by a group of historians, political theorists, and a philosopher at The Immanent Frame.

Professor Moyn begins this conversation with Pope Pius XII’s Christmas Message of 1942. The address, delivered over Vatican radio at a time when the outcome of the war was far from certain, offered “Five Points for Ordering Society” beginning with “The Dignity of the Human Person.”

He who would have the Star of Peace shine out and stand over society should cooperate, for his part, in giving back to the human person the dignity given to it by God from the very beginning . . . . He should uphold respect for and the practical realization of . . . fundamental personal rights [Moyn’s emphasis].

Pius XII’s assertion of the dignity of the person, which Moyn describes as novel “in the perspective of world history,” reflects the influence of “personalism,” a “spiritual and often explicitly religious approach to the human person” that was “the conceptual means by which Continental Europe initially incorporated human rights—and, indeed, became the homeland of the notion for several decades.”

Resting his case largely on the 1930s and 1940s work of French Catholic personalist intellectuals and on the spread of “human dignity” in Western European constitutions, beginning with the 1937 Christian Democratic constitution of Ireland, Moyn concludes that “through this lost and misremembered transwar era, it is best to see human rights as a project of the Christian right for the most part, not the secular left.”

Is the advancement of human rights in the 1940s best seen as a project of the Christian right? What could this mean? And what would this mean for the legacy of human rights today? My next three posts will explore these questions.



  •' mechtheist says:

    I’m dumbfounded that anyone could take seriously the idea that “the very notion the inherent dignity and worth of the person as a foundation for universal rights” is of Catholic origin. The church today belies this notion. It’s really hard not to laugh at the claim of ‘universal rights’ from the misogyny and homophobia entrenched in the dogmas and creeds of Catholicism. More jaw-dropping when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith dares to assert ANY sort of moral guidelines, this being the latest name given The Inquisition, a real exemplar of support for the dignity and worth of persons! Are assertions of human rights enough when behavior is in direct opposition to the words?

    What is there to say about the UN resolution other than ‘FFS-really?’ This is the work of serious DoubleSpeak pros, I’m surprised the Saudis paused their abuse of woman and public arena beheading minor criminals and infidels long enough to push for the resolution. This is a bizarre article about bizarre, twisted BS, and it takes a warped, twisted mind to take seriously Moyns account of where our ideas of human rights comes from.

  •' DC says:

    Of course the author probably has not read of the influence and ongoing development of the concept of human rights moving however slowly but assertively from the beginning of the 16th century and the conflict inside the Catholic Church between Bartolome de las Casas and Juan de Sepulveda. But a beginning is what it was, we are obviously not yet finished. I will allow the author and reader/responders look this up. Nonetheless the works of Jacques Maritain will be acknowledged, but it’s a later development.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    What does “not yet finished” mean? Does that mean waiting for the church to catch up?

  •' NancyP says:

    Moyn’s claim that the concept of universal rights originated in the Catholic Church of WWII sounds like a publish-or-perish hypothesis. Crediting Pope Pius XII for a foundational statement of human rights in 1942, at a time when most governments (and the Vatican) had intelligence about “special actions” (murder squads) against civilian Jews and slave camps using Jews, as well as certain knowledge of the German race laws, seems plain bizarre in the light of Pius’ failure to make a public statement condemning the genocide of Jews.

  • GMG248 says:

    My concern is that the religious right will attempt to reinterpret and coopt the human rights movement using the same tactics and faux-logic it has used in the religious freedom argument. Thanks Dawson for the heads up.

  • What bothers me most about Professor Moyn’s hypothesis is that it assumes that the Religious Right and the Catholic Church of today are the same as they were in previous times in history. The extremism on issues like human rights that are being displayed today do not in any way reflect the ideals of most Protestant churches that I was familiar with growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. Quite the contrary, these churches adopted political liberalism quite readily and as a result drove many people out (myself included) because of their politics-in-the-pulpit approach. But, they always supported the goal of human equality and rights. Unlike the Catholic Church and the Religious Right in this nation.

    The hard-core Evangelical movement took the opposite approach, embracing a staunch Armageddon/Prosperity Gospel approach that allowed them to push a political agenda under the guise of religion, an agenda that is all about denying human rights to vast numbers of people. If Professor Moyn contends that the Christianity in its entirety, generically if you will, fostered the human rights movement only from the mid-1940s and then only sporadically, he is living in an academic utopia without any connection to realities in the world. It would sound like his work is done more to promote a false sense of human rights security or validity for the Religious Right and the Catholic Church than actually exists today.

    In fact, I find very little in the recent historical studies of the modern Christian faith (or most modern religions) that would show that human rights were supported or even endorsed for anyone, except perhaps as lip service from some politicians or religious leaders with political agendas. Human rights should be the cornerstone of any faith, but for the Religious Right who use religion as a political cudgel or the Catholic Church who sees its words as more important than its actions or many of the other religions of the world who seem to think that no one notices their inhuman actions hiding behind religious rhetoric, human rights are nothing more than nice sounding words with no meaning.

    And that is where Professor Moyn’s work would seem to have its greatest weakness, if not true failure in trying to link religions with human rights advocacy or as it motivating group. The great religions of the world’s leaders are like “sounding gongs signifying nothing” when their actions speak so much louder than their words, and human rights is not what is being spoken. Apparently Professor Moyn sees only what he wants to see and knows that grants for research do not come from those whom you castigate with their own actions.

  •' Albert Nygren says:

    I am 72 y/o and it seems to me that the invention of the idea of “Human Rights is an invention of the Catholic Church. I say this even though I am a member of the Catholic Church. There was certainly nothing like the idea of “human rights when this country was founded. When the Catholic Church or other Liberal organizations talk about human rights what they are really talking about is Socialism. When I was a boy the general culture in the United States was a culture that believed in limited government and the least amount of government that was necessary. The ideals of the general culture were of self responsibility and that hard work would bring about the best for a person.
    The Catholic Church with it’s idea of human rights, and by this I mean the idea that a person has a right to adequate housing, food, a job that pays a wage that is enough to live comfortably on, Universal health care with everything covered, etc., etc. and that the government owes it to the people to supply them with these “human rights” is suggesting the opposite that this country was founded on and it just doesn’t work!
    In a way, the Catholic Church and all those who believe in the idea of Human rights that are owed a person by the Government are stuck back in the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages when all people were ruled by kings and the kings were by nature, selfish, greedy, ruthless, and oppressed the people as much as they could, the approach of the Catholic Church was appropriate. The kings made the peasants work themselves to death and starved them. They made the peasants grow all kinds of food and make all kinds of products and then took them all away from the people and left them in rags and only enough food to starve on.
    A good example is the Irish kings. They found that Potatoes were so nutritious that a human could live on a diet of nothing but potatoes. The people died of malnutrition by the time they were 45 or 50 but what did the king or the nobility care. By that time the married couple could have had 2 generations of children who were the next batch of peasants/slaves. The peasants grew many types of food but the king and nobility took it all away and let the people eat nothing but potatoes. When the potato blight happened, the peasants had to come to America or starve to death.
    In that type of situation it was right and good for the Catholic Church to say to the government which was a king and the nobility to give the people more. But it is not appropriate to say that in a time where at least in America we have a system of free enterprise and people can have whatever they are willing to work for.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    There was certainly nothing like the idea of “human rights when this country was founded.

    Maybe that is why they added the Bill of Rights to the constitution.

  •' Albert Nygren says:

    The Bill of Rights in the Constitution limits the Governments power and authority and gives the right of liberty to the people. There is nothing in the Bill of Rights that says the government has the duty and authority to take care of the citizen from cradle to grave nor does it give the government the right and authority to intrude into every minute facet of a person’s life. The law in New York that made it illegal to buy a container of soda pop above a certain capacity in a movie theater is an example of how far the government goes to control every little thing we do.

  •' Albert Nygren says:

    faux-logic” that sir seems to be your major expertise.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    It does seem to say all citizens should have certain rights just for being citizens. Then politics seems to change the details over time. They might have stretched things a bit when they decided to protect people from the greed of the soda pop industry, but you have to agree it is for our own good.

  •' nightgaunt says:

    Christians claim they created science as we know to day. So this is no more of a stretch for them than this.

  •' nightgaunt says:

    Even when they were compiling the Bill of Rights some of them knew what they were proposing to maintain of white male elite freedom and no one else was a contradiction that if it isn’t fixed would surely blow up in their faces. Racism as we know it today was created by the white empires as science, empire and Capitalism merged in the 17th century. Things just don’t happen, they are created by humans with ideas not all of them good for the species.

  •' cranefly says:

    If you’re still against human rights, you probably didn’t invent human rights.

  •' Albert Nygren says:

    Thanks for your comment Jim. Although what you say about the possibility of Republicans opposing a bill that is “good for us” that was proposed by Democrats is human nature and I’m sure happens although it is a negative thing. But when you say that the law limiting the size of soda pop containers in movie theaters was good for us, that to me illustrates a basic difference in the philosophies of Democrats versus real Republicans and not RINO’s.
    Just because something is good for us does not give the government the right or authority to pass laws requiring us to either do or not do that thing. There is no need for the Government to tell adults to do something that may be good for them and there is nothing in the Constitution that Gives especially the Federal Government to do something just because “They” think it is “good for us”. Thanks again for your comment..

  •' Albert Nygren says:

    Without arguing about the other things you said, you have to admit that the “Free Enterprise” financial system as produced a level of prosperity for all of us that has never been seen in then history of the world. Even today, people who are very poor have more and a higher standard of living than people who were called poor back in the days of the Feudal System.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    It can make it easier for us to live our lives. Many industries would like to be able to dump more poison in the river, and sell products that make more smog and make the air less healthy. They used to do this until the government stepped in, even though it is our choice if we will drink poisoned water, and we could have moved far enough from the LA valley that smog wouldn’t have been noticeable. We could have also just bought cars that were less polluting. It comes down to politics. Some people and companies don’t like these restrictions, and some do.

  •' nightgaunt says:

    As long as the “Free Enterprise” was under control so it doesn’t run rampant and destroy itself and us. Since the 1980’s its been running mostly free and look at what it got us. The 2nd Gilded Age. The worse redistribution of wealth from the many to few since 1929, on par with Turkey! Not Europe. So no it is a dangerous device that burns most of us and eventually all of us in the end.

  •' cmbennett01 says:

    As far as I know the church hasn’t given up on that original sin thing. Kind of hard to proclaim the inherent dignity and worth of the person while at the same time proclaiming the inherent guilt and depravity of the person.

  •' Albert Nygren says:

    Yes, since the 1980’s the Free Enterprise system has been corrupted by the Government not enforcing anti monopoly laws due to business complaints that unless the government could not do that American business could not compete with businesses from foreign countries that subsidized their businesses. I suspect their was a better way to do that.
    The fact is however, that Socialism, Communism, and any system of wealth redistribution destroys motivation to work and produces equal poverty. All of Europe would be bankrupt if it wasn’t for the discovery of North Sea oil and the same is true for Russia if oil and not been discovered there.
    The best economic system there is, is free enterprise with anti monopoly laws and appropriate but minimal government regulation.

  •' Albert Nygren says:

    A person can have inherent dignity and worth and still a sinner. Even Original si does not take away from the dignity and worth of a human being. People have original sin because Eve disobeyed God and successfully persuaded her husband Adam to disobey God also. Paul said that “sin entered the world through Adam”.
    Disobeying God and the natural guilt that goes with it causes Man to try to deny God’s existence (Adam and Eve hiding in the grass). They teach this to their children that either God isn’t real, or there, or allows man to do what ever he wants to do, (free will). This erroneous teaching, ( a materialistic Universe) is taught to their children and they become socialized to internalize their parents value system as their own.
    Because of this false materialistic World View and these false internalized values, their children and their children ever after make bad and sinful decisions. This is no way takes away from their dignity and worth of a person. A human has value and worth because he was created by God and for no other reason. If a human was not created by God and the myth of Evolution was true then humans would just be the most successful animal and what worth or dignity is inherent in that.
    Whether Protestants want to admit it or not, the Catholic Church was the first Church that was started by Jesus Apostles. The first Church’s name was not the Catholic Church but it was the same body of believers that the Apostles converted and taught. The 1st body of believers called themselves, “The Way” as is documented in the Book of Acts. This same body of believers changed what they called themselves to Christians about the year 80 and this is also documented in the book of Acts.
    A little after the year 100, because of the number of Church groups that Paul had started and the desire of the original body of believers to have people know that although there were a number of Church groups that there was only “One Church”, the body of believers started to call themselves the “Universal Christian Church”. Universal in the language of that day was Catholic and the name of the body of believers descended from Jesus Apostles is still called the Universal or Catholic Christian Church.
    This body of believers that were taught by Jesus and His Apostles certainly did bring into the world the idea of the dignity and worth of the individual human person. Certainly the Romans had no such idea. What ever sinful thing some Catholic Christian or Protestant Christian did since the time of Jesus has done nothing to diminish the worth and value of the human being that Jesus and His Apostles that were the originators of the body of believers that changed their name to the Catholic or Protestant Church has done.

  •' Albert Nygren says:

    If some Christian claimed that Christians created science that we know today they are wrong. Christians were some of the first scientists but nor scientists as we know today. Even the Scientific method that I learned in elementary school in the 1940’s and 50’s was not the science that we know today. The Scientific method and the science of the 1940’s was something I loved and respected. The faux science of today with it’s “String theories” and Evolution taught as a fact rather than a theory makes me want to vomit with it’s lack of logic or integrity.

  •' cmbennett01 says:

    That men can hold two contradictory ideas in mind at the same time is beyond question, that does not however mean that they are in any way reconcilable. To reconcile human dignity with original sin requires a redefinition of dignity. To reconcile freedom with the idea of an omnipotent deity requires a redefinition of freedom. To claim the moral high-ground the church has to redefine morality; not as the ability to distinguish right from wrong but as obedience to God. Sin is not a crime or transgression against your fellow man, it is disobedience to God.
    This redefinition of concepts into their opposites may be something that theologians are comfortable with, they have after-all had to reconcile all the contradictions of a book written by numerous authors at different times, but it is not a position that I would consider legitimate. I do not accept the idea of sin and the concept of christian morality as obedience offends me.
    It is to the credit of most modern mainstream Christians that they believe in the the idea of human dignity. This is an idea that I think is inherent in human nature once they realize that all men are essentially the same. Fear and ignorance reinforced by ideology is required to extinguish that idea and it is an unfortunate fact that sectarian religion perpetuates the idea that others are different and often stokes the fear and hatred of believers. I have seen many a preacher with a glint of glee in his eye and spittle flying from his mouth as he describes the torture in store for the unbeliever.
    I am not interested in the “that’s not real Christianity” argument because I’ve heard it before. There is, I think, an increasing polarization in America on the issue of faith. Those who reject the barbarity of the old monotheistic religions are increasingly rejecting religion all together. This is a good thing. On the other hand, those that remain in the church are becoming increasingly intolerant, and regressive in their views. I think, and hope, that dignity will win out in the end.
    You have provided a rather lengthy apologetic, but I feel I must tell you I have heard it all before. You should understand that most people who reject your faith do so after having read and considered the scriptures and writings of the church. It is the believer who accepts it on faith. I, like many, do not consider the bible as sufficient proof for the truth of the bible. If your argument is to reinforce you own faith, by all means continue, but you are unlikely to convince anyone who does not already share your views.

  •' cmbennett01 says:

    I’m afraid the Theory of Natural Selection has been around a little longer than you think. It is a well established theory, and in fact the only one around that accounts for the diversity of life on the planet. If you consider this to be faux science I think you may not have learned your lessons quite well enough in 1940. As for string theory, it is no where near as established. It is in fact several theories that physicists have proposed to explain the nature of phenomenon that are not yet clearly understood. No one claims it as fact. You might do well to read up on the subject a little.

  •' Johnny Number 5 says:

    That’s a misleading title. It should be something like “Should we give credit to the christian right for human rights?” As written, it sounds like it’s asking whether we should grant protection of human rights to members of the Christian right, implicitly in the context of when many from the Christian right are denying those rights to others.

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