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.