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.