Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Samuel Moyn's "Christian Human Rights"

Samuel Moyn is Professor of Law and History at Harvard University and author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. He is coeditor, with Jan Eckel, of The Breakthrough: Human Rights in the 1970s.

Moyn applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Christian Human Rights, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Christian Human Rights comes from the conclusion to the book’s second and most important chapter, which provides an overview of the trajectory of so-called “Christian personalism.”

What was personalism? It matters because it was on the rise during the period of the 1930s and 1940s that Christian Human Rights singles out for study, and because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) — which still serves as the lodestar of the human rights movement today — repeatedly consecrated “the human person” as the beneficiary of rights.

As Page 99 of Christian Human Rights argues, when we hear the term “person” today we are likely to associate it with Enlightenment German thinker Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, which drew on a long tradition going back to Roman law. And, in turn, we are likely to believe that the whole human rights project is committed to the sort of progressive liberalism with which a series of Kant’s disciples in our day have succeeded in associating his philosophy. In turn, the individualist liberalism of that school of thought is still routinely compared to “communitarian” views that encumber people with traditions of obligation and coercive membership that mark the limit of autonomy.

But if Christian Human Rights is correct, these assumptions make it difficult to grasp the outlook of many of our 1940s ancestors, for whom communitarianism was the necessary premise for any declaration of rights.

In fact, “the human person” in the 1930s and 1940s was associated primarily with Christian social thought, not secular liberalism, whether Kantian or otherwise. The phrase had arisen and become popular in the 1930s among critics of secular liberalism, who joined the large club of observers through the Great Depression insisting that not only the economic liberalism but the moral individualism and therefore the political rights associated with the French Revolution had led humanity badly astray. Such observers called in droves for a wide variety of alternatives, but all of them were premised on restoring some sort of community that the nineteenth century had supposedly ruled out.

As we now know, of course, most of those alternatives themselves failed, even though European Christians of the time generally embraced them with open arms, whether the alternatives took the form of outright fascism or more Christian inflected forms of clerico-fascism or religious authoritarianism. Christian Human Rights tells the story of how Europeans, even as their experiments failed through World War II, never turned back to nineteenth-century secular liberalism, but instead struggled for a vision of the “person” whose moral and political prerogatives would remain compatible with (religious) community and its overriding moral norms.

The Universal Declaration became one landmark in this achievement. In turn, one project from Christian politics of the 1930s did survive, the invention of a new form of “Christian democracy” that would rehabilitate parliamentary rule and individual rights within a larger Christian polity. Not only did the project dominate West European politics after World War II, but it became central to the Cold War struggle against Soviets who now claimed to be the true heirs of the secular French Revolution. More generally, therefore, Christian Human Rights contends that in their inaugural age, the new principles had tight links to the sort of Cold War liberalism that dominated the transatlantic space. Learning from conservatives, liberals gave up much belief in human emancipation to make politics fearful of threats, anxious about sin, and fatalistic in regards to human possibility.

As a transatlantic story, the consecration of “the person” (against the individual) in the 1930s or 1940s for the sake of Christian politics also had some interesting American parallels — not surprisingly given that mainline Protestants still ruled the United States politically and culturally, and regularly saw themselves as part of a much larger Protestant international. John Rawls himself, though later the founder of contemporary academic liberalism, was not yet a Kantian in the 1940s (few were). Instead, he was a Christian thinker. His own sources, and perhaps most especially the Swiss theologian Emil Brunner, convinced him (as Rawls put it in his 1942 Princeton senior thesis) that “an individual is not merely an individual, but a person, and … a society is not a group of individuals but a community.” At the time, he was a world away from his ultimate destination, and therefore from the criticism that his liberalism neglected “community.” Rather, as for so many others, the establishment of Christian community was a prime goal of theory.

Overall, Page 99 of Christian Human Rights, like the larger book, tries to restore human rights to the intellectual ambiance of the 1940s, since so much has changed between then and now. It is easy to forget what human rights meant to their main advocates and audiences when they were first canonized internationally.
Learn more about Christian Human Rights at the University of Pennsylvania Press website.

The Page 99 Test: The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History.

--Marshal Zeringue