Samuel Moyn’s latest book, Christian Human Rights traces the history of human rights to the early twentieth century. There, he finds a set of figures far different from what one might expect, given the secular, liberal tone taken by many human rights organizations today. The protagonists of this story are frequently religious, most often Christian, and deeply involved in negotiating a political landscape dominated by totalitarianism, communism, capitalism, and a host of other shifting ideologies. Cosmologics sat down with Moyn to talk more about this intricate narrative and its consequences for contemporary debates over rights and religion.

Lewis West for Cosmologics

Cosmologics: You talk about the “novel communion” at this specific moment in the early twentieth century, of Christianity and human rights. What makes that moment the one to focus on, and, if there is a larger story of religion and law in this area, where does it sit in that?

Samuel Moyn: Christian Human Rights is really narrow: it’s about the nineteen thirties and forties, with some looks backwards and forwards. That really reflects my own interests in human rights as a cause today, which everyone agrees dates back at least as far as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So this book is my argument that we should pay much more attention to Christianity if we’re interested in that document and the era it came from.

The broader question is: what does religion in general, and Christianity in particular, have to do with rights and human rights? There is currently a big debate about how far back we go—so let me explain how I think about it. If we’re interested in human rights as values, then many of the values are very old and even biblical. That’s one plausible way of thinking about where human rights come from: many of the values, if we look at them one by one, are similar to some before. Even the first and most basic human right, the right to life, is very old in some ways. But then, it doesn’t seem as if the ancient, medieval, early modern, or modern history of Christianity gives us lots of reason to think that its culture and politics were very respectful of what we now call human rights. I think it’s true that liberalism, which is especially associated with the idea of individual rights, comes out of Christianity, because there’s nowhere else for liberalism to come out of except Christianity. But what I was interested in, as someone trained as a historian of modern Europe, is how many Christians in between World War One and Two concluded that it was time to ditch liberalism.

I wondered, how is it possible both that they were driven to go in that direction, and that they subsequently had such an influence on the Universal Declaration? That’s why I focused so narrowly. Christians often joined fascist movements or National Socialism, and they also set up their own Christian versions of authoritarianism in that era. The puzzle was how they could do that and still be the ones who were much more central, I think, than any other group in embracing and propagating the idea of human rights in the nineteen forties.

Cosmologics: You talk about this in the book—there’s a shift then to the secular vision of human rights after that. What are the details of how that pivot happens?

Samuel Moyn: It depends on what we mean by secular; there is likewise a huge debate happening right now on that score. But clearly, human rights were meant, in some sense, as public principles that didn’t require Christian beliefs or membership in Christian churches. At the same time, they were closely associated with people who wanted to spread Christianity as an idea. That is, I think, strange for many contemporary observers, because today human rights are very much associated in the United States and Western Europe with the secular Left. I found that the evidence suggests that in the forties, the secular Left was mainly socialistic. There were also Christian socialists, but the people arguing for rights were often not only claiming they were connected with Christian values, but were frequently conservatives facing down socialism, sometimes proposing their own Christian form of charitable or local redistribution. I would say there’s already a fair bit of secularism in that era’s Christians, because a lot of water had gone under the bridge. It’s not like they’re early modern Christians trying to impose a rule of orthodoxy. That said, many tried to capture governments, and did so in places like Austria, Spain, Portugal, and France, before and after WWII. Afterwards, they’re already pretty secular, but the big contrast is later with contemporary human rights activism, which is, by and large, populated by professed secularists and identified as a secularist cause.


Human rights had been an advocacy language when they were associated with liberal revolution, back in 1776 and 1789. Yet that was not at all what the Christians in the forties wanted: some of them had been monarchists or authoritarians in the thirties.


Cosmologics: It seems that the main characters are political thinkers, activists, people at that level. So how far down can you track this in people’s lives? Is this pure intellectual history, or does it flow through all levels?

Samuel Moyn: Absolutely. I’m trained as an intellectual historian of elite figures, so I fasten on them. There’s also a lot of attention to politicians and spiritual leaders, who may not answer to the label “intellectual” but are definitely elites, starting with people like the Roman Catholic pontiff. But there’s, I think, a quite open question about whether and when human rights, in the sense I’m looking at in the book, become a grassroots language. I tend to think that some of the ideas, if we connect them to broad values, definitely are—but they’ve been a grassroots concern for a long time.

Some of the more specific ideas, though, also have a broader currency. One of the antonyms of human rights for Christians is totalitarianism, and there’s good evidence that that opposition filters way down. In the book, I study the career of this concept of the “human person.” It was always represented as what Christianity had to offer that would save the West from totalitarianism. I’ve spoken to people who went to Catholic school in the fifties, and they say things like, “Sam, this is exactly what we were taught. What’s wrong with communism? It doesn’t respect the dignity of the human person.”

That said, what’s sort of fascinating about this moment is that human rights don’t become mobilizational in the way they do later. There are no human rights NGOs in the forties, unless you want to count churches, and the Christian NGOs that are founded. One of the more interesting ones is Pax Christi, but there’s also the ecumenical movement among mainline Protestants in the American context, they talk a lot about human rights. But it doesn’t seem as if we get human rights advocacy of the kind that becomes really prominent in the seventies and beyond. That suggests that people are doing things at the grassroots level, but that this idea doesn’t reshape grassroots advocacy in the way it will several decades later.

Cosmologics: Today, when you watch, for example, the Arab Spring, some people are on the streets framing demands in terms of rights. But it looks like at the particular moment you’re talking about, that language is just not there, or at least we can’t find it.

Samuel Moyn: I think not. Either the Arab Spring is doing something very old or very new, but somehow not in the middle. Human rights had been an advocacy language when they were associated with liberal revolution, back in 1776 and 1789, and through the 19th century when they’re connected with liberal nationalism and the idea of revolting against monarchy and empire. Yet that was not at all what the Christians in the forties wanted: some of them had been monarchists or authoritarians in the thirties. There’s no tight correlation between the idea of human rights and liberal democracy, nor with revolution, which is something that, at that time, it appeared the Soviets had captured. So it’s really after 1989 that the idea of liberal revolution returns, and that you get the idea of Color Revolutions, which enabled people to interpret or misinterpret the Arab Spring as a rights-based revolution. That’s something that just wasn’t thinkable for a long stretch of the Cold War.

Cosmologics: I wanted to asked about the human person bit as well, specifically Personalism, in part because I’m about to go to New York to the Catholic Worker, which is very influenced by that. That seems like an interesting constellation of theology and religion intersecting with other conceptions of the self from law. Could go into a little more detail about the threads that come together there?

Samuel Moyn: It’s a very difficult thing to disentangle, actually: the idea of the person is very old, and it’s come in a lot of varieties. One of the main characters of my book, Jacques Maritain, at one point said, “There are at least a dozen personalist doctrines, which, at times, have nothing more in common than the term ‘person.’” If we go back, there’s a famous anthropologist, Marcel Mauss, who had a story about the origins of the person, and I think we can fairly associate it with Roman law. That had a big influence on Immanuel Kant and on his legal thought, and then there was also a nineteenth-century Personalism.

But the people I’m talking about wanted to find a third way between what they saw as some bad options. On the one hand was liberalism, which had been associated by some with materialism and capitalism for a long time. According to personalists, liberals were mere “individualists.” On the other, there were the fascists—and eventually Nazis—who are irreligious. The characters in my book were willing to group them together with the Soviets, who were explicitly materialist, as one big totalitarian threat. They talked about the person as some spiritual alternative that was neither liberal nor totalitarian, arguing that this idea would save us not just from materialism, but from this bad choice we have in modern times between being atomized and being totalitarianized in a state. They thought we could reconcile our individual personhood with groups, but that it wouldn’t happen within the secular state. It would be in some kind of social identity that is more defensible and fulfilling—that’s the main idea, but of course, it’s still very vague.

Cosmologics: That’s what’s taken up by human rights at that moment?

Samuel Moyn: We find lots of references to the human person in the UN Charter and especially in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I think the idea was that it could mean a lot of different things to a lot of people, but Christians who had trafficked in this idea did inject it into the document. Now, they were very different from Dorothy Day and others, who took the human person and Personalism in a very different direction. She had contacts to Peter Maurin, to some Frenchmen who are aware of this discourse, and she adopts a distinctive version, a very interesting one, but not a dominant one. I’m looking at people who eventually became Cold War liberals. It’s strange—they spent the thirties, and even the decades before that, rejecting America, rejecting liberalism, rejecting materialism. But stranger things have happened.

Cosmologics: I wonder the extent to which that tracks with Catholic life in the US as well, with its ambivalent relationship to modernity and America at large.

Samuel Moyn: Absolutely. There’s such interesting work going on in this area this right now. We know now how beset a community Catholics were in nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century America. They were not wrong to intuit that America was an aggressively Protestant nation, and as a result they developed their own critiques of the materialism and atomism of modern life in a Protestant country. But then the Soviets, in a way, made new alliances possible that had not been previously imaginable. One of the really interesting things that people have been studying lately is the new acceptance across the Atlantic of Catholicism by Protestants and vice-versa, and, along with that, the construction of the idea of “Judeo-Christianity,” which your brilliant colleague Healan Gaston studies.

Cosmologics: After writing about religion and law, what do you want to see for work in that field? A huge question.

Samuel Moyn: It’s huge because I feel like I’ve intersected it on my own journey and side-swiped it. But I’m not trained in the area—if anything more in the area of Jewish studies in Jewish thought.

Cosmologics: So how did you intersect with it?

Samuel Moyn: I have been lately in life a human rights scholar. When I wrote my first book on where human rights came from, my main goal was to emphasize the origins of human rights advocacy and human rights foreign policy. I realized that that all came really late in the 1970s. Yet when I was looking at the 1940s—in a way to depreciate their contribution relative to later times—it struck me how prominent Christian thinkers and actors and themes really were. So then I got invited to give some lectures and I thought I would emphasize this fact as a stand-alone argument. But it’s not as if there’s some general proposal about religion and law that I’m pushing.


The possibility of human rights as we know them was not only made possible by the collapse of socialism, but also by the collapse or steep decline of Christianity.


I do think I’ve run across a kind of theoretical difficulty that I and others have in studying religion, which is whether to “take it seriously.” You know, I suppose, the famous article “Taking Religion Seriously.” Many of the people I study said they were apolitical, or that they didn’t want to be left or right. That, to them, was the expectation that secularism imposed, and that they wanted to resist. I say some things in the introduction about this. I didn’t want to grant them the power to interpret themselves; I wanted to hold out the need to see what they had in store for the rest of us, which is, by any fair definition, a political agenda. That said, I also attempted to take very seriously the way in which they framed their claims, especially that claim not to be political. Which is of course one of the most powerful political claims that Jesus had, and that many of his followers had.

It’s not a novel insight, but when one is as secularist as I am and studies religious actors, it’s very easy to run roughshod over their own nuance and aspirations. But one can’t allow them to be self-interpreting.

Cosmologics: What do you think would be the danger—as a scholar or as someone interested in human rights and advocacy—of letting that self-interpretation happen?

Samuel Moyn: In its favor, I would say that, without it, we could very easily miss what these individuals thought was exciting and necessary about their projects and statements and worldviews. If we just try to smoke them out, engage in ideology critique, or reduce their arguments or actions to familiar categories, we miss what they were about, which seems like a basic error. On the other hand, it seems that they were, at this point, operating with an awareness that these ideas could have implications not just locally but for the whole world. And they wanted those implications to follow for different kinds of people, whether secular or of other faiths. Trying to understand their perspective from outside—that is, why they were trying to join one kind of movement or state in the thirties, but made very different choices regarding concrete political outcomes in the forties—strikes me as very important.

Cosmologics: Returning to the beginning, and how your concern is very much about the present, in addition to the history of these concepts. How does this story change how we should think about the efficacy or relevance of human rights now?

Samuel Moyn: Insofar as there’s been a debate about the book, it’s been about the question of legacies or continuity. What I want to suggest is that we have to make clear how Christian a moment it was, a kind of golden age for Christianity in Western Europe. The possibility of human rights as we know them was not only made possible by the collapse of socialism, but also by the collapse or steep decline of Christianity. Even if one wants to claim that secularism is a version of Christianity, organized Christianity did experience a massive catastrophe.

My general answer to why Christian human rights in the 1940s matter now is thus not that human rights are still Christian. It is that we should want to know the origins of things and should look for continuities we might reject if we knew about them. But there may not be as many contemporary implications as one might hope or fear. I do think it helps us pluralize the actors in contemporary human rights advocacy. It’s still probably the case that the number of Christian NGOs dwarfs that of secular NGOs in the world, and there are definite legacies of the events that I cover in some circles. I don’t think these events define mainstream human rights thinking or advocacy, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important.

Cosmologics: In terms of human rights today, and the people using it—is the Christian origin something important, if we’re thinking about people from different faith backgrounds or different areas? Especially when we understand that Judeo-Christianity is not a natural concept, despite what many people might say.

Samuel Moyn: I’ve had people come up to me and say, “even if this is true, you shouldn’t say it, because today a lot of people around the world are making their own uses of human rights that far escape the founding intentions or origins, even if they were Christian at the start.” Clearly, human rights have made sense to people on very different terms than the ones I describe in the book, and I think that’s to be celebrated. Perhaps my general view, quite apart from human rights, which are a very small thing measured in world-historical terms, is that Christianity is this very interesting, unique religion that seems to have self-destructed in history. It’s not without its remnants, and it gives rise to liberalism and secularism, which can’t have come from anyplace else. That means that Christian human rights are a small example of that larger story: we can look at the strange origins of things that now lots of different kinds of people in very different places can embrace, often in radically new ways that the founders couldn’t have imagined.

Samuel Moyn is is Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Professor of Law and Professor of History at Harvard University. He received a doctorate in modern European history from the University of California-Berkeley in 2000 and a law degree from Harvard University in 2001. He has written several books in his fields of European intellectual history and human rights history, including The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Harvard University Press, 2010), and edited or coedited a number of others. His new book, based on Mellon Distinguished Lectures at the University of Pennsylvania in fall 2014, is Christian Human Rights (2015).

Lewis West is co-editor of Cosmologics and a doctoral student at Yale.


Image from Flickr via United Nations Photo


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *