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Rights a project of the Christian Right

29 January 2016

Nick Spencer on the forgotten part played by Rome and Dublin


Christian Human Rights
Samuel Moyn
Penn Press £16.50
Church Times Bookshop £14.85 


THE battle over the philosophical connection between Christianity and human rights rages on. Is the former necessary for the latter? Are the two simply consistent with one another? Or does the latter actually distort and betray the former?

By comparison, the battle over the political connection appears largely settled. “Human rights”, the story goes, is a straightforwardly secular banner, raised by French Revolutionaries in the 18th century, denounced by Christian reactionaries in the 19th, and formalised by the United Nations in the 20th. Politically, Christianity has been at best indifferent, and more commonly opposed, to human rights.

Not so, says the Harvard professor of law and history Samuel Moyn in this short, focused, forensic, and persuasive book. “It is equally if not more viable to regard human rights as a project of the Christian right, not the secular left.” This is not, it is worth noting, an apologetic claim, the kind that more foolhardy Christian soldiers sometimes make when they identify a popular contemporary good and naturally assume it must derive from Christianity. Moyn holds no theological brief and is hardly uncritical of the Church, or of the way in which Christianity shaped the post-war conception of human rights. It is simply the truth.

Moyn’s tale begins in the inter-war period, when the Roman Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain drew the important distinction between the person and the individual. In his wake, “Thomistic personalism” was appropriated by Catholics on a continent that was beset by fascistic, communistic, and extreme nationalistic conceptions of the human good. Thereafter, human dignity became a key element in Christian understanding of “man”, both theologically, in papal teaching, and legally, in the new Irish Constitution of 1937, and was linked to human rights, until then a secular concept against which the Church had indeed railed.

This Irish Constitution was seminal, the first time in world history that human dignity was placed in such a legal framework, but the linkage of dignity and rights remained a fragile one in the early 1940s. It was Pope Pius XII who made it mainstream in his 1942 Christmas address, treating rights not as a threat to theo-political unity as his predecessors had, but as a bulwark against an overbearing communistic state, and against the materialism and relativism that had long hovered on the periphery of democracy.

Thereafter, the term grew in use: in the United States, through the work of Jesuit John Courtney Murray; in Europe, through the Christian Democratic parties, and their largely RC leaders, who dominated post-war politics; and globally, through the UN Declaration of Human Rights, through Charles Malik, a Lebanese Christian who was responsible for the personalistic language in the declaration. It was only later that the more secular-minded appropriated the concept and forgot its Christian political roots.

As noted, Moyn is not uncritical of the Christian influence on human rights, nor does he airbrush out its longstanding opposition before the 1930s. But that makes this short reassessment of what human rights owe to Christianity all the more convincing and important.


Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos.

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