The Origin of Christian Human Rights

MoynCheck out Lilian Calles Barger interview with Samuel Moyn, history professor at Harvard and author of Christian Human Rights.

Here is Barger’s summary of Moyn’s book:

Samuel Moyn is Professor of Law and History at Harvard University. InChristian Human Rights (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), Moyn provides a historical intervention in our understanding of how the idea of human rights in the mid-twentieth century came to be. He argues that contrary to current thought, that sees it as part of the long-legacy of Christianity, or the triumph of liberal democracy, it has a more complicated history. The notion of human rights was inspired by a defense of the dignity of the human person. It first arose just prior to WW II as part of the reformulation of the liberal idea of human rights, deemed morally bankrupt, taken up by conservative religious thinkers. Moyn argues that the long-held Christian concept of moral equality of human beings did not translate into political rights. Rather the reformulation of human rights in the 1940s was a Catholic communitarian defense against totalitarian, capitalism and political secularism. The language of rights was extricated from the legacy of the French Revolution “rights of man” to become a religious value checking the political power of the state with religious freedom as a key concept. The philosophy of “personalism” articulated by Jacques Maritain recast democracy and human rights in a Catholic vein becoming enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the ascendancy of Christian democratic parties at mid-century. Secularized after the 1960s, human rights became an increasingly uninspiring concept unable to do the work it promised. Moyn suggests transcending this mid-twentieth Christian legacy and notes the need to find a new effective transformative creed.

Listen to the interview here.

 

One thought on “The Origin of Christian Human Rights

  1. Secularized after the 1960s, human rights became an increasingly uninspiring concept unable to do the work it promised. Moyn suggests transcending this mid-twentieth Christian legacy and notes the need to find a new effective transformative creed.

    “And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?”

    These 250 years later, this has yet to be answered in the affirmative with any success.

    Moyn does seem to be contentious with his doing of history. I’m certainly not happy about him “blasting” Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon for tracing the Catholic origins of “rights talk” to well before his locus in the mid-20th century, although I confess a partiality for her partiality.

    https://newrepublic.com/article/78542/the-old-new-thing-human-rights

    Moyn also blasts Mary Ann Glendon’s A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a splendid history of the origins of the Universal Declaration in 1948, as a typical “story of breakthrough, triumph, and uplift that screens out the most interesting features of the period.” Instead, Moyn argues that great power diplomacy was more important than human rights in the early years of the United Nations. But the reality is that Glendon got there first: she takes it as a general rule of politics that power trumps conscience, argues from the start that the “human rights project was peripheral” to big power diplomacy in creating the U.N., and refers often to Cold War tensions.

    About Samantha Power’s “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, Moyn declares that it “fails to reflect on the very recent conditions for the possibility of its own moral position and energy.” Power’s magnificent book, based on scholarship and personal experience covering the slaughter in Bosnia, is an almost entirely maudlin tale. From Wilson to Clinton, president after president systematically lets genocide go on—including Jimmy Carter in Moyn’s golden 1970s, who had Cambodia on his watch. True, there are some lonely “upstanders” calling out for action against genocide, but they are almost invariably defeated and humiliated. If this is “church history,” they would be weeping in the pews.

    Moyn’s book omits a great deal. Cesare Beccaria’s famous fight against torture is not here. Neither is the mobilization against the Armenian genocide. He breezes past the interwar minorities treaties. Not once does he mention Nelson Mandela, who invoked the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in his famous Rivonia trial speech in 1964. Most remarkably, even as Moyn decries “deeply selective history,” his book ignores two really colossal chunks of pertinent history: the anti-slavery movement and the development of the laws of war.

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