Christian human rights: a conversation with Samuel Moyn

How the Catholic Church learned to love human rights

September 17, 2015
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On Christmas Day 1942, when the Second World War had yet to take a decisive turn in the Allies' favour, Pope Pius XII delivered his seasonal message. It was entitled "Dignity of the Human Person" and announced the Church's commitment to "respect for and the practical realisation of... fundamental personal rights." In his new book, "Christian Human Rights," the American intellectual historian (and occasional Prospect contributor) Samuel Moyn describes Pius's invocation of the "unforgettable rights of man" as a "critical turning point"—both in the history of the Roman Catholic Church and in the development of the discourse of human rights.

It's also a historical puzzle: why did the Catholic Church, which had previously rejected the secular language of human rights, then adopt it? When I spoke to Moyn recently, he told me that the roots of Pius's apparently sudden conversion lay in the 1930s.

SM: Pius XII’s predecessor, Pius XI, had been the pioneer in making human rights a Catholic political language at the highest levels of the Church. I think the reason was that, like many Catholics in the rank and file, the popes had had their own fliration with the far right in European politics—most of all with Mussolini in Italy. And while they never turn their back on the far right in places like Spain and Portugal, they realise that secular statesmen could betray them, even when they claim to be Christians. The popes realised that trying to Christianise states was a dangerous game. So they decided they had to have a way of marking the limits of states and of secular power. [Talking about] rights was their way of doing so.

JDIt seems to me that your argument in this book is aimed in two directions at once: on the one hand, against secular liberals who deny any connection between the idea of human rights and Christian doctrine; and, on the other, against Christians who claim that the Christian lineage of human rights is a long one.

That’s right, though I’d also add a third audience, which is the contemporary left. There’s this fascinating battle going [in the UK] right now about the Human Rights Act. It’s very clear to historians working on the 1940s that it was the Tories, and Winston Churchill in particular, who championed human rights, and particularly the European Convention, as part of their defence of western Christendom. Meanwhile, the left in the 1940s was pursuing not human rights but socialism. So, what sides people took in the Forties ought to have some implications for progressives, as well.

And as far as the Christian audience is concerned, your claim is that Christian human rights were “injected into tradition” during this period “by pretending they had always been there.” In other words, that Christian human rights are a recent invention.

That’s right, though there were precedents. There was a powerful intersection of Christianity and liberalism very far back, especially in England—whether one takes the case of John Locke in the 17th century, or Lord Acton in the 19th century. But, by and large, the further east one goes into continental Christianity, one finds that, in the 1930s, Christians believe that liberalism is dead.

Locke is an interesting case. How does the interpretation of Locke’s political thought advanced by someone like Jeremy Waldron sit with the argument you’re making here? I'm thinking of Waldron’s claim that, in Locke, the equality of persons is an axiom of theology.

There’s no doubt that there’s a strong case to say that Christianity, along with Islam, had important egalitarian implications—though mainly for morality, rather than for politics. Most of us feel that, notwithstanding the example of Locke, that it’s going to be difficult to explain political equality, which is something quite different, just through Christian theological premises.

The book is also an attempt to solve a historical paradox isn’t it? That, on the one hand, Christianity was, as you put it, “deeply entangled” in the collapse of liberal democracy in the 1930s and, on the other, that it was Christians who helped to define the idea of human rights in the 1940s.

That’s the paradox, indeed. But it becomes considerably less paradoxical when one remembers that the cleavage in the Forties was primarily, in Europe, between socialists and traditionalists. Socialists were not friendly towards talk of human rights, even though this was the era when economic and social rights become important. So no one would claim that the British welfare state was set up by the Labour Party through a citation of the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights]—they had some other way of posing the problem. That’s a really important part of the puzzle.

All that is true. But you do get, in 1950 for example, TH Marshall offering a kind of post facto justification for the Attlee welfare state precisely in terms of social rights, which he sees as a necessary complement to political and civil rights.

It is perfectly true that the Universal Declaration does reflect a kind of trans-Atlantic welfarist consensus. Socialists and welfarists were willing to frame things like healthcare in terms of human rights. And absolutely, TH Marshall is a central author. But very revealingly, when we look at the regional level in Europe, Churchill’s project of the European Convention unceremoniously drops economic and social rights—in part because he wanted human rights to be an anti-communist language, but also because he wanted to tar the Labour party in Britain with the brush of communist expropriation. It was going to be less convenient to do so if human rights incorporated economic and social rights. So the European Convention dropped those.

I’m particularly interested in your discussion of the central role played in all this by the concept of human dignity. Why does the concept of dignity become so central in the late Thirties and early Forties?

It's everywhere today. But my concern was to look back and recall just how Christian a concept this was, and what exactly it implied in laying out political options for Christians in the Thirties and Forties. I look at Ireland. It’s been missed that it’s the Irish constitution of 1937 that first put dignity in a leading position in a constitutional document. What’s interesting there is that constitution precedes the war and the Holocaust, to which many think [the concept of ] human dignity must have been a response. In Ireland, in 1937, dignity was about creating a kind of Christian politics that would keep liberal democracy, but on conservative, Christian terms.

You mentioned the political deployment of the concept of dignity. Can we consider its philosophical content? I take it that it implies something like the intrinsic worth of human persons?

A lot of people in the era I’m writing about could agree fully with that while [maintaining] other commitments that we would find abhorrent. I’ve always found it disturbing how little a commitment to human dignity uncontroversially rules out. And I think we need to come to grips with this fact.

You place considerable emphasis on the way the concept of human dignity is reassigned in religious discourse during this period from collectivities to individuals—specifically, to the human person. Two questions about that: first, how does the human person in this Christian language differ from the liberal individual; second, to what extent does the idea of the dignity of the human person retain traces of its communitarian prehistory?

Dignity, by and large, had not been assigned to individuals or persons. So dignity had not been human dignity. It really was about the status of aristocrats, of some humans and of things that were to be valued highly—offices, for example, So we still have the phrase “dignity of the office”, referring to the presidency or whatever it might be. Christians were often interested in assigning dignity to things like marriage or work. When they opposed socialism, they tended to say, “We believe in the dignity of work and workers; we just don’t believe in socialist solutions to provide that dignity.” So something happens in the Thirties when Christians are willing to talk about human dignity, but I believe it was in a way that preserved their main project, which was to preserve the enforcement of social morality.

It’s part of the creation of a new ideological position after the Second World War. Rights had always been associated with the secular left. And in the face of a new kind of left beyond borders—the Soviet Union—liberals and conservatives began to agree more. Liberals were willing to take on board on religion. And the religious were talking more about rights. What we call “Cold War liberalism” was born. It was no longer about freedom and emancipation; it was much more tragic than that, and was much more interested in social order than [previous] liberalism[s] had been.

And the traces of the old communitarian version of dignity?

Even though a new kind of human rights movement exploded after 1970 or so, when the European Convention, for example, finally started to become relevant to European affairs—even though that movement made what was an advance for secular liberalism, in the United States and elsewhere, there were still traces of this communitarian approach, above all on the Catholic right. In the US, there’s been a big movement to champion religious freedom against the secular state, including things like anti-discrimination law. So I see a big legacy there. I also have a chapter in the book about the Muslim headscarf controversies [in Europe]. And there I want to show that there’s a sense in which the enemy of human rights had once been the irreligious communist, and now it’s become the observant Muslim. The European Court of Human Rights doesn’t protect the right to wear the headscarf for those individuals, but views their religious observance as a threat to democracy in approximately the same way that people had viewed communism as dangerous a few decades before.

Another of the things you’re doing in this book is giving an account of the emergence, after the Second World War, of what you call “conservative democracy”, and an account of its philosophical underpinnings. The notion of human dignity is central to that isn’t it?

That’s right. It’s part of a larger picture. We can blame events in the east for reshuffling what had been a different deck of cards. In the 19th century it had chiefly been a matter of secular, individual liberation versus religious communitarianism. But then the Soviets captured the heritage of the French Revolution and claimed to be its 20th-century incarnation. Where liberals and conservatives had been deeply opposed in the 19th century, in the face of communism they allied with one another. And that meant that both had to compromise. I see Christian human rights as part of that larger story. The right accepted rights, if you like, but the left both accepted the sway of a lot more religion than it had been willing to tolerate hitherto and placed order above emancipation in its suite of goals. I think that legacy is troubling and remains with us.

You could see this book as the prolegomenon to a full-length study of postwar Christian democracy in Europe. As you say at one point, Christian democracy was the “defining feature of the post-World War Two political settlement”. And that claim seems to me to imply a revision of certain influential accounts of the postwar period, not least Tony Judt’s in his book Postwar, which pays relatively little attention to Christian democracy.

I think Tony had a tin ear for religion. It’s true my book is a promissory note. It’s an exciting time for historians who are restoring religion to the history of postwar politics. To understand the outcome of the Second World War we have to think that the winner was not exactly liberal democracy—it was a new kind of liberal democracy that was much more religious in general, and Christian in particular, than it had ever been.

Samuel Moyn's "Christian Human Rights" is published by University of Pennsylvania Press