Conservatism by Other Means: Samuel Moyn’s Christian Human Rights

(This article has been expanded and reprinted here with permission from a shorter article that was first published in The Hedgehog Review, Spring 2016, Vol.18, No.1.)


The nine-person drafting committee of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights included individuals from very different cultural, philosophical, and religious backgrounds, including Chinese, Middle Eastern, Hindu, Latin American, Islamic, Jewish, Christian, and Marxian traditions. This fact, along with the committee’s decision to exclude any references to God or religion from the preamble, has led some scholars to claim a strictly secular foundation to human rights in the post-World War II era.[1] It is increasingly clear, however, that religion—and more particularly, Christianity—played a central role in the genesis and early promotion of the Declaration as a statement of putatively universal values. The three individuals who did the most to craft the language of the document—John Humphrey, Charles Malik, and Eleanor Roosevelt—were all strongly influenced by Christian worldviews. More significantly, between 1939 and 1947 Protestant theologians and church leaders—working through the World Council of Churches, the Commission for a Just and Durable Peace, the Federal Council of Churches, and other bodies, in close ecumenical partnership with the American Jewish Committee and the bishops of the Catholic Church—campaigned vigorously for the creation of the United Nations and “a new world order” dedicated to human rights. “In fact,” Max Stackhouse writes, “the more this history is dug out, the clearer it becomes that they supplied much of the intellectual and ethical substance that formed these so-called ‘secular’ documents.”[2]

In his latest book, Christian Human Rights, Harvard historian Samuel Moyn—building on his 2010 book, The Last Utopia, as well as a 2014 collection of essays titled Human Rights and the Uses of History—seeks to excavate the importance of Christian social and political thought for the rise of human rights in the twentieth-century. Unlike Stackhouse, however, Moyn presents this story not in a celebratory but rather in a deeply skeptical and at times even cynical key.[3] He aims to uncover the origins of “our premier principles” by following a path of “tough criticism rather than unreflective admiration.”[4] The result is a work of critical scholarship that is by turns illuminating, puzzling, contentious, and flawed.

It was only in the 1930s and 1940s, in Moyn’s telling, that Christians for the first time embraced the vocabulary of human rights in any notable way. Whatever “percolations” of rights talk we might find in earlier sources, he asserts, are too murky, diffuse, and inconsequential to be credited, even partially, for the birth of human rights concepts or for the sudden flourishing of rights discourse during and immediately after World War II. If anything, “Christianity had mostly stood for values inimical to those we now associate with rights.”[5] Even the faith’s proclamation of radical equality, from its earliest beginnings, “had no bearing on most forms of political equality—whether between Christians and Jews, whites and blacks, civilized and savage, or men and women.”[6] Historians who have sought to show otherwise Moyn charges with trading in a “fictitious” and selective teleological reading of the past that he brands “tunnel vision.”[7] “Christian human rights were injected into tradition by pretending they had always been there, and on the basis of minor antecedents now treated as fonts of enduring commitments.”[8]

With the creation of the heavily Catholic-influenced Irish Constitution in 1937—which for the first time linked the vocabulary of rights with the notion of “dignity” in constitutional theory—“the discourse reached the heights of Christianity.”[9] Pope Pious XII’s 1942 Christmas address, in which he championed “fundamental personal rights” before a wide audience, marked another “unprecedented” moment in the spread of rights talk.[10] The same year, with the publication Natural Law and Human Rights, Jacques Maritain would emerge as the period’s most important human rights theorist, arguing—in “a stroke of a master, or a sleight of hand, or both” [11]—that rights find their true grounding in Thomistic natural law. “Thanks to Maritain, above all, the older view that Christianity’s political and social doctrine could not be reformulated in terms of rights was dropped in exchange for the claim that only the Christian vision placing the personal entitlements in the framework of the common good afforded a persuasive theory of rights.”[12]

What is most striking about Christian appeals to human rights in these decades, Moyn contends, is that they emerged not in defense of individual emancipation, following in the secular Enlightenment tradition of “the rights of man”, but rather as an “epoch-making reinvention of conservatism.”[13] The burst of references to human rights during and immediately after World War II—led most prominently by Christian thinkers at a time when few others displayed any evident enthusiasm for rights-talk—was a reaction not to the horrors of the Holocaust but to the perceived threats of secular liberalism on the one hand and atheistic totalitarianism on the other. Order, not freedom, was the true goal. “Human rights” were born, Moyn writes, not as a progressive political movement so much as a retrenchment of bourgeois values under the banner of “personalism”—the Catholic “third way” for saving European civilization from the twin perils of secular modernity: relativistic individualism on the one hand and authoritarian collectivism on the other. “Human rights” were necessary, within this project of the reconstructed Christian Right, to protect spiritual communities and Christian homes from intrusion by the godless state. However, Moyn concludes, “This liberation was for the sake of subjugation: so that men and (perhaps especially) women could conform to God’s will and moral order.”[14]

It would take another three decades, in Moyn’s genealogy of rights, before “human rights” proper could finally “take off” as secular leftists wrested the idea from the lexicon of reactionary (albeit in some ways noble) Cold War Christian thinkers, transforming its meaning into a more progressive defense of personal liberties and placing it at the center of international law. Yet the Christian origins of human rights still “haunts politics” in our “regrettable” preference for moderation and maintaining order over more radical “bids for secular progress.”[15] We live in an age of “guarded centrism”, Moyn laments, in which “human rights” has as much to do with “policing the borders and boundaries on which threatening enemies loom” as it does with advancing the cause of justice.[16] He is (perhaps necessarily) vague when it comes to offering constructive alternatives to the rights regimes that today command such tremendous global prestige (even if often little practical political power), yet he ends his book by sounding a paradoxical as well as unsettling warning: given the failure of today’s champions of human rights to change the conduct of states in radical ways, the very notion of human rights might itself need to be abandoned “in the name of its own ideals or some better ones.”[17]

A Grand Narrative of Secular Enlightenment

The richness of Christian Human Rights lies in Moyn’s recovery of forgotten events and characters in all of their complexity as well as moral ambiguity. He offers compelling accounts of the Catholic Church’s sudden about-face from being avowedly opposed to human rights and democracy in the nineteenth-century to vigorously championing them in the twentieth; the disturbing prominence of “dignity” in the constitutions of Vichy France and Franco’s Spain; and the quixotic labors of perhaps the world’s first historian of human rights, the conservative German scholar Gerhard Ritter. Moyn performs for historians of human rights something akin to David Hume’s skeptical assault on epistemological complacency. Scholars have distorted the alterity of the past in a game of retrospective “connect the dots”, he charges, when in fact they are unable to trace contemporary rights to “deep background” sources (whether religious or philosophical) in any convincing causal narrative.[18] It is a bracing accusation that ought to stimulate vital debate and sharpen the arguments of those committed to excavating the sources of human rights and humanistic values in much earlier texts and lives than Moyn thinks should be admitted in the discussion.

Ultimately, however, Moyn presents less an iconoclastic retelling of the history of human rights than a surprisingly conventional grand narrative about the meaning of secular modernity in which religion—with some added depths and nuances—continues to be cast in a familiar stock role. The narrative is the narrative of Enlightenment (as problematic and multivalent as the word might be) based upon the assumption of a clear secular/religious divide, and the association of the former with Progress and the latter with values that are predictably past their sell-by date. Moyn might object to this brushstroke characterization of his work. Christian Human Rights contains little in the way of cheerful optimism about either the past or the future, and he elsewhere explicitly rejects the notion that “history inevitably betters humanity’s lot.”[19] His first book—a 2005 study of the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas titled Origins of the Other—shows that he is alive to the difficulties of neatly separating “secular” politics from theological or religious wellsprings. Nevertheless, for Moyn Christianity in some ways advanced but ultimately thwarted the forward march of history, derailing the political trajectory of the French Revolution by burdening the freedom of secular rights with essentially conservative theological—and so retrograde—notions of sacred “dignity.”[20] It is therefore left to radical thinkers to complete the promise of the Enlightenment by overcoming the lingering effects of Christian personalism on our political landscape, pressing beyond “dignity” and even “human rights” if necessary to arrive at new and as yet uncharted shores.[21]

Leaving aside the question of whether Moyn’s account of Christianity and human rights represents a rigorously rational, unflinching and de-mythologizing application of historical methods to the evidence at hand, or a highly contestable meta-narrative rooted in its own mythology and metaphysics (in which, for example, forging sharp secular/religious binaries and then vigilantly guarding the boundaries still holds a powerful urgency and salience[22]), Christian Human Rights—when read alongside Moyn’s earlier books—is problematic in at least two additional ways. First, theoretically, he insists upon a highly stringent but in many ways arbitrary definition of “human rights.” Second, empirically, Moyn fails to do justice to significant historical evidence that cuts against his thesis. I offer these criticisms as a reader who has learned much from Moyn’s books and who has also appreciated his generosity responding to personal correspondence.

Delimiting Human Rights

Many of Moyn’s statements about the very recent origins of human rights are bewildering until one realizes how he is employing the term. Where other scholars have developed genealogies of rights that take for granted overlapping influences, shared meanings, and historical continuities across a number of rights terms—including “natural rights,” “the rights of man,” and “civil rights”—Moyn instead emphasizes their discontinuities, treating different rights formulations not merely as diverging streams but as mutually exclusive and even antithetical concepts.[23] “True,” he concedes in The Last Utopia, “rights have long existed.” However, he continues, “they were from the beginning part of the authority of the state, not invoked to transcend it.”[24] Apart from “essentially random uses”, the phrase human rights only gained “its first serious circulation in the English language” in 1933 with the introduction of FDR’s New Deal reforms.[25] But “the phrase meant different things to different people from the beginning” and so really “meant nothing specific” when it was first deployed.[26] Further, even after the language of “human rights” was enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the late 1940s, “no international rights movement emerged at the time.”[27] It was not until the 1970s “that human rights came to define people’s hopes for the future as the foundation of an international movement and a utopia of international law.”[28] Hence, according to Moyn, we cannot speak of human rights as existing in any meaningful sense prior to roughly the past five decades.

Following Moyn’s logic, when Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference marched on Washington in 1963, they were not marching for human rights, merely civil rights, i.e., an expanded vision of citizenship within a particular nation-state—which is perhaps why Christian Human Rights does not contain a single reference to the SCLC, King, or any other leader of the Civil Rights movement (unless one includes this single sentence: “Liberal Protestants were indeed some of the most committed to civil rights for African Americans”[29]). It will no doubt come as a rude awakening to many individuals who actually participated in the Civil Rights movement to learn that their beliefs and actions do not merit even honorable mention in the story of Christianity and human rights. But once one understands the bar Moyn has set for conceptualizing human rights, other parts of his argument become understandable even if not fully persuasive. The question of whether human rights existed before the emergence of the modern nation-state would seem to be largely incoherent in Moyn’s theory of human rights; for absent an international movement dedicated to the creation of a new cosmopolitan order of international law, we can only be speaking of something other than human rights as Moyn would have us understand the term.

Is this way of delimiting human rights strictly a matter of historical record, however, or a highly questionable theoretical and definitional choice? Moyn’s insistence that we sharply distinguish human rights from ancient and medieval natural rights, from Enlightenment-era revolutionary rights, and even from twentieth-century civil rights strikes this reader as both historically and theoretically dubious given that demands for equal treatment under the laws of any particular polity are very often, at one and the same time, the assertion of a more fundamental, universal, or human right to fairness and nondiscrimination.

Beyond these definitional questions, Moyn’s claim that Christians only embraced the language of human rights in any significant way during the 1930s and 1940s is demonstrably false. He does not engage in any sustained analysis of the work of scholars who have shown that earlier ages had ways of expressing the central idea of human rights even when they did not use the phrase “human rights” itself.[30] Nor does he confront the explicit references to “human rights” in the English language that appear throughout the nineteenth-century. Yet the references abound.

The Original Breakthrough

The program Google Ngrams, which can be used to chart trends in language usage over time and which is particularly accurate for the period 1800 to 2000, shows that the original breakthrough in references to “human rights” occurred not in the twentieth but in the first half of the nineteenth-century. The term may not have been nearly as widely used or culturally powerful as it is today, but neither do human rights only emerge in a few “essentially random” places prior to the 1930s, as Moyn strangely asserts. Between 1830 and 1850, “human rights” saw a leap in usage as dramatic as the burst in references to “humanitarian interventions” (to cite a single example) over the past 20 years. During the 1840s, the phrase “human rights” was more popular in English language publications than it was in the 1930s. Throughout the entire nineteenth century, human rights in fact filled a greater portion of the English language in print than a host of words and phrases that are part of our everyday speech have ever filled (e.g., “police brutality”, “green energy”, “hip-hop”, “affordable healthcare”, “nuclear proliferation”, “Native American”). In 1937, Moyn’s pivotal year for the alleged Christian embrace of rights talk, human rights was still less common in print than it had been in 1850. How did he miss these facts if not by committing exactly what he acerbically charges other scholars with committing, namely, historical tunnel vision? To use a somewhat grim analogy, Moyn’s focus on the astonishing wave of human rights organizing and speech since 1970 reads at times like someone who is so overawed by the sheer scale of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki they conclude that there really were no bombs—at least, none worthy of mention—before them. Call it the argument from gigantism.[31]

Who were the individuals appealing directly to human rights with such surprising frequency a full century before the events Moyn describes in Christian Human Rights? The original breakthrough in speech and activism for human rights was led by abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic, the most radical of whom were, virtually to a person, devout Christians fired by a distinctively Christian moral imagination. These individuals interpreted their struggle and the meaning of human rights in avowedly theological terms as a recovery of the political meaning of the Gospel amid the social realities of their day. In the words of one leader of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, Maria Weston Chapman (defiantly announcing an upcoming anti-slavery meeting in the local newspapers in the face of mob violence), the group was determined to fight “with Christian constancy” for “the holy cause of human rights.”[32] To cite perhaps the most prominent champion of human rights in the first half of the nineteenth century, in 1831 the first issue of William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator—predecessor to The Nation, where many of Moyn’s own articles have appeared—was published beneath the motto, “Our country is the world, our countrymen are mankind.” In his inaugural editorial, Garrison wrote that he would be “as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice” in “the great cause of human rights.”[33]

Garrison was no conservative reactionary but a devout evangelical whose Christian radicalism led him to publically burn the United States Constitution to protest its compromises with oppression. He did more than any other single individual to force the slavery issue into public consciousness, and over the next three decades The Liberator would include nearly 1000 references to “human rights.”[34] (By contrast, the publication contains fewer than 600 references to the “rights of man” and fewer than 400 references to “natural rights”.) The Liberator was only one of a tremendous number of abolitionist publications and in 1835 the deeply religious lawyer Lewis Tappan (famous for his defense before the U.S. Supreme Court of the slaves of the Amistad revolt) co-founded an anti-slavery journal that was actually titled “Human Rights.” Over the next four years of its run, hundreds of thousands of copies of Human Rights were mailed to communities all across the nation.[35]

As for Moyn’s assertion that nineteenth-century rights advocates thought only in forms “wholly compatible with the spread of national sovereignty, rather than imagining rules or rights above it,”[36] we find counter evidence not only in the audacious universalism emblazoned across the masthead of The Liberator, or in Garrison’s public burning of the Constitution (and how many human rights advocates today would be so radical in their opposition to the idolatry of patriotic nationalism?), but also in, for example, the 1844 abolitionist hymnal, Anti-Slavery Hymns Designed to Aid the Cause of Human Rights. The work includes among its remarkable stanzas the following chorus: “My country! ‘tis of thee, Strong hold of slavery, of thee I sing: Land where my fathers died, Where men man’s rights deride, from every mountain-side, Thy deeds shall ring.”[37] On what moral basis were abolitionists penning, and singing, such deeply subversive indictments of the nation-state and its pretensions to sovereignty if not precisely by “imagining rules or rights above it”?

Nor was abolitionism without significant international dimensions, including the World Anti-Slavery Conventions in London in 1840 and 1843. Both meetings dissolved in controversy due to political schisms among the various abolitionist factions (particularly over women’s rights and the seating of female delegates, which the Garrisonians treated as a linked cause together with anti-slavery). However, the mere fact that these meetings were organized and occurred—in an age when transatlantic communication and travel were exceedingly difficult—highlights the international aspirations of the movement. The conventions were attended by hundreds of delegates and observed by thousands more, primarily from the United States and Britain but also from across the Caribbean and Latin America, all hoping to forge closer ties in order to abolish slavery globally. Speakers presented a wealth of statistical data on the savageries of slavery, which even if not a direct cause of such methods of reporting by human rights organizations today are at least a dramatic historical precedent.

One would unfortunately not learn any of these facts from reading The Last Utopia, Human Rights and the Uses of History, or Christian Human Rights. In the latter, Moyn mentions abolitionism only once, with tinges of sarcasm, as one of several “uplifting backstories” routinely trotted out by historians but which he insists have little if anything to do with “human rights.”[38] In an essay titled “On International Courts” in Human Rights and the Uses of History, he does devote several pages to abolitionism but once more chiefly for the sake of casual dismissal. Abolitionists “very rarely used the idea of rights, activated as they more typically were by Christianity, humanitarianism or other ideologies…it is even true that abolitionists for a brief period in the 1830s invoked ‘human rights,’ but this practice waned.”[39]

Undoubtedly abolitionist uses of the term “human rights” differed from current uses in significant ways, and there is no reason to quarrel with Moyn when he points out that anti-slavery also provided convenient ideological cover for the project of British imperialism in the name of humanitarian intervention (although it does seem rather jaundiced to emphasize this fact and relegate to a footnote the fact that at least some abolitionists had “defensible or even praiseworthy motives”[40]). I will leave more detailed content analysis of abolitionist uses of the term “human rights” for a future article. Suffice it to say that important differences do not erase basic continuities. Many thousands of references to human rights, including in a journal bearing the title Human Rights—by people fighting to end human bondage in the name of universal values, which they took directly from their readings of the New Testament—is no inconsequential or “essentially random” “percolating” of the idea that can be sloughed aside as mere trivia in the telling of the story of Christianity and human rights. It is remarkable that Moyn finds no reason in The Last Utopia or Christian Human Rights to provide even the briefest of summaries of these antecedents to modern human rights discourse. It is at least worth considering that when Catholic thinkers began to appeal to human rights in the 1930s they were appropriating not the “rights of man” of Voltaire, Robespierre, or other figures of the French Revolution so much as a grammar as well as explicit vocabulary of human rights that had been an important part of Christian social and political witness (even if the minority report) for at least a century.

The Perils of Selective Memory

The fact that the abolitionists claimed the biblical narrative of the God who “sets the captive free” as the warrant for their activism raises the question of what “deep background” actually means in Moyn’s criticism of the work other historians. In a February 2015 article in the Boston Review, he writes (with remarkable confidence in the face of a great deal of New Testament scholarship to the contrary) that neither Jesus nor Paul had “any truly political vision.”[41] The radical abolitionists apparently failed to understand their New Testament as well as Moyn does—although they did continually read, quote, and preach from the Gospels as well as from the Hebrew prophets in the name of human rights and justice for the oppressed. Slaveholders obviously quoted from the Bible as well, and according to Moyn, if a religious tradition is marked by different legacies it is simply “unbelievable” to credit its founding texts for the emergence of contemporary morals.[42] Yet this is a non sequitur.  Any particular set of contemporary morals might be precisely one such legacy among others.

Rather than summarily dismissing the importance of “deep background” for the idea of human rights, it would make far greater sense to simply acknowledge what should be an uncontroversial fact: devout Christians were the first to appeal directly to human rights in any significant way, and they did so on the basis of explicitly theological reasoning and rhetoric that are only intelligible in the light of “deep” biblical wellsprings—the story of the God revealed in the sufferings of an innocent man who identifies with the weak and the lowly to the point of being tortured to death on charges of sedition and heresy. Yet human rights were a matter of intense political contestation among different communities of believers concerning the earliest sources and most profound meanings of the faith. Christianity thus encompasses different Christianities. Retaining a healthy historical skepticism about the past does not mean we cannot trace how Christians from ancient times up to the present have “performed” Scripture as living documents within evolving traditions in response to new dilemmas of power, violence, injustice, and oppression—whether creatively or disastrously, faithfully or destructively.

Let it be noted that accepting the importance of “deep backgrounds” for modern values in this way is something of a double-edged sword. Moyn provides a potent inoculation against selective hagiographic readings of history. Yet his prescription in the end also destroys any basis for confronting the burdens of deep historical accountability. Following Moyn’s reasoning, we would have to conclude that it is teleological “tunnel vision” and a distracting game of “connect the dots” when historians search for deep sources to modern anti-Semitism. One need not claim that Mein Kampf was caused, in some kind of crudely linear or deterministic sense, by Pope Paul IV’s forced ghettoization of the Jews of Rome in 1555, or by Luther’s vile tract, “On Jews and Their Lies”, to still grasp an essential truth: any serious reckoning with Nazi racial ideology must at least attempt to locate this story within the still larger story of centuries of European anti-Semitism.

This larger history demands in turn that Christians confront the terrible even if unintended consequences of language embedded in the New Testament, and particularly the Gospel of John (which like all of the New Testament was written by a Jewish author but which introduced a fiercely polemical language into the Christian tradition condemning “the Jews” for having crucified Christ). Of course, a more immediate and fateful source of Nazi race “science” was the rise of strictly materialistic notions of social Darwinism in the modern period, and so it is necessary to make considered judgments as to where the proper emphasis in the story should rest. But any refusal, in the name of skeptical methodological rigor, to even allow for the possibility of deep background sources to the horrors of the past century would be instantly recognized by most morally serious people as nothing more than an enticement to selective memory and historical amnesia.

Double Erasures, Future Utopias

I have focused on the abolitionists only because they provide the most obvious and dramatic empirical falsification of one of Moyn’s central claims. If we trace the story of Christianity and human rights into the twentieth century we find other cases that defy his characterization of the relationship as one of essentially conservative reaction “for the sake of subjugation.” In 1933, the pacifist, anarchist, and socialist Dorothy Day, together with Peter Maurin, founded the Catholic Workers Movement to fight for the rights of the poor using techniques of nonviolent direct action.  Maurin and Day were animated precisely by the Catholic philosophy of personalism that Moyn criticizes, but one can hardly characterize their politics as little more than “a reformulation of conservativism in the name of a vision of moral constraint, not human emancipation or individual liberation.”[43] The case of Day in fact illustrates how generally unhelpful the labels “conservative” and “liberal” are when it comes to discussions of religious thought beyond the most simplifying levels of generalization.

In her 1952 autobiography, The Long Loneliness, Day reflected on her 1927 conversion to Catholicism and the tension she felt throughout the rest of her life between her commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the institutional realities of the Catholic Church.  “I felt that charity was a word to choke over.  Who wanted charity?  And it was not just human pride but a strong sense of man’s dignity and worth, and what was due to him in justice, that made me resent, rather than feel proud of so mighty a sum total of Catholic institutions.”[44] What did justice mean for Day?  In 1946, two years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, she wrote, “What we would like to do is change the world—make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do.  And to a certain extent, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, of the poor, of the destitute—the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words—we can to a certain extent change the world…We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever-widening circle will reach around the world.”[45]

To which one fears Moyn would reply, “No Dorothy.  You threw your pebble and it sank—it just sank.” Names such as Maurin’s and Day’s are, at least, of sinking significance in Moyn’s books while other previously obscure individuals are treated as seminal figures whose stamp on Christian social thought is of defining importance. Even Peter Benenson, the charismatic if volatile founder of the world’s premier human rights organization from the 1960s up to the present, Amnesty International, is mentioned in only a single sentence in Christian Human Rights (and a few pages more in The Last Utopia)—no matter the fact that he, along with most other pioneers of the organization, were dedicated Christians who fused their theological and spiritual commitments with generally leftist (although steadfastly nonviolent and so for some insufficiently revolutionary) politics.

Benenson was a Jewish convert to Catholicism whose first Amnesty action was to light a candle for prisoners of conscience in St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields church in London. Other Christian pioneers of the organization included the Quaker Eric Baker (who did the most to establish Amnesty’s policy of supporting only prisoners who adhered to nonviolent tactics in keeping with the examples of Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.), the Methodist lay preacher Peter Archer (who at one time had hoped to become a foreign missionary and who first proposed that the group embrace the language of “human rights”), the Catholic Noble Peace Prize winner Sean MacBride, the Methodist Tom Sargant, and the Congregationalist conscientious objector Keith Siviter. (The organization’s non-Christian founding figures were almost entirely Jewish, including Diana Redhouse, Dorothy Warner, and Marlys Deeds.)[46]

If Moyn punctures complacent histories of human rights that gloss over the messy and morally ambiguous itinerary of the human rights language most people in the West now take for granted, it is hard not to conclude that he has also systematically refused to allow even the faith’s genuine saints and rights heroes to complicate his own narrative.  What is this if not a kind of double erasure?  Individuals who were maligned and marginalized in their lifetimes yet who contributed in vital ways to remarkable (no matter how flawed) political and social movements are once more marginalized in the name of critical scholarship.  If historical anachronism is one way of betraying the dead, as Moyn warns in Human Rights and the Uses of History, not so much as mentioning their names or attempting to work out their legacies is surely another. Moyn candidly writes in the introduction to Christian Human Rights that his book is offered as a “set of soundings” and that he has made no attempt to capture the full story of Christian human rights, including “notably that of an evanescent Christian left.”[47] The evidence he offers is “selective and illustrative but not comprehensive or even representative.”[48] We are left, then, with a true puzzle: What exactly is being illustrated if Moyn’s case selection, by his own admission, is not representative?

These problems with Christian Human Rights notwithstanding, Moyn drives home a vital insight that I in no way wish to minimize: the human rights explosion of the 1970s, rapidly shorn of any obvious Christian features by its most enthusiastic supporters, was on a truly staggering scale; and this calls for a better explanation than teleological “just so” stories about the ineluctable blossoming of secular rationalism in the highest humanism (cf. Steven Pinker[49]). The best explanation for “the breakthrough” to contemporary human rights, Moyn suggests, is “the collapse of prior utopias and the search for refuge elsewhere.”[50] These older utopias included Cold War political ideologies as well as Christianity, which in the 1960s “entered freefall” in Western Europe.[51] The language of human rights was embraced in a remarkably unprecedented way across the West because it filled a moral and spiritual void that had opened with the death of other idealisms. Catholic theologian William Cavanaugh provides a helpful term for such transferences: “migrations of the holy.”[52] If at least a few serious Christian thinkers have held a highly ambivalent view of the modern project of human rights it is from the sense that on this point Moyn is exactly right: what is now being constructed in the name of secular emancipation, the autonomy of the individual will, and historical progress is nothing other than an alternative utopia lacking any truly coherent philosophical grounding or sustainable moral force.

Ironically, the stunning success of human rights as a secular religion has proven remarkably fragile and short-lived, at least judging from the elegiac tone of several recent works on human rights, including Moyn’s own.[53] His final verdict on contemporary human rights regimes—that they represent an “exploding variety of rival political schemes” rather than the pure moral vision they continue to clamorously claim for themselves—is absolutely prescient.[54] Unfortunately, I find no grounds for hope in Moyn’s almost mystical final invocations of a “utopianism of the future”—a utopia beyond the last utopia that will be emphatically not Christian or religious in the least, and that might somehow save us from the internal contradictions of secular human rights as we now find them, both in theory and in practice. To hope for such a future secular utopia would require, I fear, too great a leap of faith.


[1] See, for example, Michael Ignatieff, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), pp.64-65.

[2] Max Stackhouse, “Why Human Rights Needs God: A Christian Perspective,” in Does Human Rights Need God, eds., Elizabeth M. Bucar and Barbra Barnett (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p.29.

[3] Moyn himself characterizes his work in these terms. In the preface to Human Rights and the Uses of History he writes that his book “cynically punctures illusions, historical and political, but not in the name of cynicism.” Samuel Moyn, Human Rights and the Uses of History (London: Verso Press, 2014), p.xvii.

[4] Samuel Moyn, Christian Human Rights (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), p.24.

[5] Ibid., p.6.

[6] Ibid., p.6.

[7] Ibid., pp.6, 67, 184.

[8] Ibid., p.5.

[9] Ibid., p.15.

[10] Ibid., p.2.

[11] Ibid., pp.82-83.

[12] Ibid., p.83.

[13] Ibid., p.67.

[14] Ibid., p.11.

[15] Moyn seems to contradict himself when he writes in his conclusion, “There is no reason…to think that a secret Christian legacy haunts many or most aspects of human rights regimes that have in fact been built or mobilizations in which advocates currently engage. The shocking secularization of the European continent a quarter century after the transwar era on which this book has focused, which strangely coincided with the true takeoff of human rights mobilization, permits no other conclusion.” Ibid., p.24, 173.

[16] Ibid., p.24.

[17] Ibid., p.181.

[18] Moyn, Human Rights and the Uses of History, pp.18, 57.

[19] Ibid., p.24.

[20] Moyn, Human Rights and the Uses of History, pp.28, 33.  Hans Joas, by contrast, challenges “the myth that the French Revolution was antireligious”, arguing that what is today often depicted as Enlightenment hostility to religious faith and particularly Christianity was in fact hostility to corrupt clericalism.  Much of the driving force behind both the French and American revolutions is simply unintelligible, Joas points out, apart from theistic assumptions as well as rhetoric.  See Hans Joas, The Sacredness of the Person: A New Genealogy of Human Rights (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013), pp.11-28.

[21] Human Rights and the Uses of History begins with an epigraph by Nietzsche urging us to “see our European morality” by following the method of “a traveler who wants to know how high the towers in a town are: he leaves the city.”

[22] Moyn’s thesis in Origins of the Other is that Levinas’s ethics of “the Other” emerged not from any specifically Jewish intellectual inheritance—which Moyn finds to be “to eroded, fragmentary, and contested to provide a coherent identity for the philosopher to adopt”—but rather as “a secularization of a transconfessional, but originally Protestant theology of encounter with the divine” represented most strongly by thinkers such as Karl Barth and Søren Kierkegaard.  Levinas “made secularization the central challenge of his philosophical maturation,” and the particular form of secularization he developed is only intelligible when read against the “modern recasting of revelation as subjective experience and the Weimar understanding of revelation as interpersonal encounter.”  While Moyn deems Levinas’s project of restating “values originally rooted in theological premises in persuasive secular terms” a vital and ongoing need, he argues that Levinas was ultimately not “wary enough” of religion and so in the end fell into a kind of re-encryption of theology in ethics. We are thus left with “the continuing burden of the task he laudably shouldered,” namely, the task of fully secularizing morality. Samuel Moyn, Origins of the Other: Emmanuel Levinas Between Revelation and Ethics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005), pp.12, 15-20.

[23] In the eighteenth-century, for example, “nations became the formative crucible of rights, and their indispensible ally and forum—in other words, exactly what human rights as an idea and a practice would later have to set itself against. The actual significance of the era of democratic revolution in America and France, in other words, is as much in negating the possibility of twentieth-century human rights doctrines as in making them available.” Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), p.23.

[24] Ibid., p.7.

[25] Ibid., p.49.

[26] Ibid., p.50.

[27] Ibid., p.7.

[28] Ibid., p.7.

[29] Ibid., p.150.

[30] The Last Utopia contains a lengthy “bibliographic essay” in its back pages in which Moyn cites a single author, Nicholas Wolterstorff, on the topic of early Christian sources of human rights. Yet Moyn provides no analysis of the actual contents of Wolterstorff’s argument, which includes detailed and historically contextualized descriptions of human rights concepts in biblical sources as well as in the sermons of the early Church Fathers. See Moyn, The Last Utopia, p.312; and Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), pp.59-62.

[31] “[W]hen it comes to human rights, it is not a persistent stream but a shocking groundswell that has to be explained.” Moyn, The Last Utopia, p.42

[32] Henry Mayer, All On Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), p.200.

[33] William Lloyd Garrison, “To the Public”, in Classics of American Political and Constitutional Thought, Vol.1: Origins through the Civil War, eds. Scott J. Hammond, Kevin R. Hardwick, and Howard L. Lubert (Indianapolis: Hacket, 2007), pp.973-974

[34] I am grateful to a student assistant in the Peace and Justice Studies Program at Wellesley College, Mackenzie Hemp, for helping me compile these statistics using the ProQuest electronic archives of The Liberator from January 1, 1831 through December 29, 1865.

[35] Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War Against Slavery (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University, 1969), pp.143-145.

[36] Moyn, The Last Utopia, p.28.

[37] “My Native Country” in Anti-Slavery Hymnal Designed to Aid the Cause of Human Rights (Hopedale Massachusetts Community Press, 1844), p.31.

[38] Moyn, Christian Human Rights, p.102.

[39] Moyn, Human Rights and the Uses of History, p.58.

[40] Ibid., pp.57-59.

[41] Samuel Moyn, “Did Christianity Create Liberalism?,” Boston Review, February 9, 2015, on the web at:

[42] Monotheistic universalism “is of no real relevance to a history of human rights, for two main reasons. One is that these sources offered raw ingredients for a huge array of doctrines and movements over the millennia; the other is that they did so only in connection with other elements that would later have to be eliminated in order to achieve ‘human rights’ later…Since then numerous successor universalisms have arisen. But their alien conceptions, no less than the diversity of their legacies, makes crediting them with the origins of contemporary morals simply unbelievable.” Moyn, The Last Utopia, pp.14-15.

[43] Moyn, Christian Human Rights, p.10.

[44] Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1952), p.138.

[45] Dorothy Day, “Love is the Measure” and “Our Brothers, the Communists” in Liberating Faith: Religious Voices for Justice, Peace, and Ecological Wisdom, ed. Roger S. Gottlieb (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), p.250.

[46] See Stephen Hopgood, Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International (Cornell University Press, 2006), pp.56-65; and Moyn, The Last Utopia, pp.128-134.

[47] Moyn, Christian Human Rights, p.22.

[48] Moyn, Christian Human Rights, p.22.

[49] Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (London: Penguin, 2011), pp.168-189. For a trenchant critique of Pinker’s claims, see John Gray, “Steven Pinker is wrong about violence and war”, The Guardian, March 13, 2015, online at:

[50] Moyn, The Last Utopia, p.122.

[51] Ibid., p.167.

[52] William Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).

[53] See, for example, Eric Posner, The Twilight of Human Rights Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), and Stephen Hopgood, The Endtimes of Human Rights (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013).

[54] Moyn, The Last Utopia, p.227.