By P. MACKENZIE BOK
Review of Christian Human Rights, by Samuel Moyn
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015
When Friedrich Nietzsche published On the Genealogy of Morals in 1887, he subtitled it “A Polemic” (“Eine Streitschrift”), lest anyone be confused. Though historian Samuel Moyn of Harvard Law School has not given his latest book such a subtitle, he might have done; Christian Human Rights belongs in the same tradition. Moyn’s very fine historical craftsmanship is evident throughout, but the book’s raison d’etre is a normative polemic, and it yields far more to the reader once considered in that vein. Like Nietzsche, Moyn’s aim is to scrutinize the Christian sources of a contemporary moral system—in this case, the cause of ‘human rights’—in order to unsettle his readers’ complacent assumptions about its origins and merits.
Whereas Nietzsche used his genealogy to clear the way for a radical rejection of ‘slave morality’, however, Moyn is attempting a salvage operation of sorts. He thinks Christianity co-opted and conservatized rights-talk in the 1930s, and that the contemporary human rights movement that emerged from this development is frustratingly ineffective and aims disappointingly low. Moyn would rather see secular leftists coalesce again around an economic vision of substantive well-being, making their aim positive flourishing rather than enforcing a set of negative protections. Yet he wants the next secular vision of utopia to build on the existing cosmopolitan coalition in favor of human rights, and he believes it could make fruitful use of some Christian techniques to spread its message. Thus in Christian Human Rights he tries to make a double move: acknowledging historical Christian influences in order to repudiate them, yet also scrutinizing Christianity as a model for a future secular utopianism to surpass in universalism and effectiveness. This program drives the book, shaping its structure and examples. In the process, some fascinating historical moments are illuminated, even as others are distorted by too rigid a schema and still others are surprisingly excluded. Although Moyn has repeatedly criticized traditional “church history” for serving as a selective handmaiden to its authors’ theological commitments, Christian Human Rights ultimately represents a parallel effort to put “church history” to secular polemical purpose.
Not long ago, a Moyn apostle might have been expected to disclaim any substantial connection between Christianity and human rights. Moyn made his first major intervention in human rights history in The Last Utopia (2010), where he argued that the contemporary conception of human rights—as a moral and legal regime underpinning international law, foreign policy, and military intervention—was radically new, invented nearly from whole cloth in the 1970s. Moyn’s target was the style of triumphant history of human rights, popular in the prior decade, which depicted human rights as the culmination of an unfurling process of recognition for human dignity. Whether these accounts began in ancient Athens or revolutionary France, atop Mount Sinai or the hills of Galilee, among scholastic natural lawyers or fervent abolitionists, Moyn thought they all lent human rights far too long a pedigree. Nor did he think human rights had emerged in response to the horrors of the Holocaust, another more proximate suggestion. Although the language of ‘human rights’ was forged over the 1930s and 1940s and trumpeted in the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, Moyn argued that human rights did not take on their conceptual heft—as values that could transcend state power and serve as an interventionist rallying cry—until the 1970s. And the crucial circumstance that enabled their meteoric rise was “the collapse of prior universalistic schemes”, to which human rights came to offer a persuasive, initially minimalist alternative. (LU, 7) If one could not have utopia—if neither communism nor capitalism, nor even anticolonial nationalism, seemed like systems to pin utopian hopes on anymore—one could at least have decency, in the form of human rights. Moyn then chronicled the irony of how the cause of human rights came itself to imply a more maximalist vision, transforming into “the last utopia” of an ostensibly post-ideological age. In Moyn’s view, the human rights cause was poorly suited to such a role. Telling the actual story of its ascendancy could enable one to admire its ambitions and recognize its power, but also to demote it in favor of more fruitful utopian visions going forward.
Moyn made a powerful case, persuading many that the specific circumstances of the 1970s deserved close attention when historicizing human rights. Harder for some to swallow was the stronger version of his claim: that contemporary human rights emerged fully-formed in 1977, largely without precursors, like Athena from Zeus’s skull. Moyn has a decided preference for such arguments of radical discontinuity, which can seem prone to exaggeration. After all, there’s quite a leap from disputing a lineage to asserting that something came out of nowhere. (Perhaps in a spontaneous eruption of ‘midi-chlorians’, to echo a narrative weak point in a homelier mythology.) Even for those who accepted Moyn’s emphasis on the 1970s, it seemed strange to resist the idea that this moment could be usefully placed in a Christian context, given the key roles played by Polish and Latin American Catholics and by the feelingly-Protestant President Jimmy Carter. Or in the context of a tradition of European rights-talk, given the prominence of French voices and the vociferous postwar calls for democratic institutions that respected the individual. At its best, The Last Utopia brought sharp critical scrutiny to bear on lazy assumptions of historical continuity; at its moments of overstatement, its pinpoint focus on a narrow historical moment felt akin to a stock-market chart that purports to show an enormous rise or fall—but is in fact merely zoomed in too close.
Some critics may therefore feel initial vindication that Moyn has now penned Christian Human Rights, focusing on the period of the 1930s and 1940s and proclaiming that, “No one interested in where human rights came from can afford to ignore Christianity.” (CHR, 169) It is one of the joys of Moyn’s scholarship that he takes consistent, mischievous delight in undermining the settled assumptions even of his allies. So here he is tweaking those readers who might have marshaled The Last Utopia to argue that contemporary human rights are a decidedly secular legacy. On close inspection, however, Moyn does not see himself as backtracking very much, and the new book’s agenda is more explicitly secular than what came before. Repeating the argumentative structure of The Last Utopia while shifting his focus forty years earlier, Moyn offers a new moment of radical historical discontinuity: the embrace of the language of “dignity” and “human rights” by European Catholicism beginning in 1937. In Moyn’s telling, this move by Popes Pius XI and XII—heavily influenced by the thought of Jacques Maritain—was a break from Church tradition, which had always resisted rights-talk. And in the process of adopting the rights of the person as its own cause, European Catholicism stamped its inherent conservatism into human rights discourse.
In other words, the history of human rights is just Christian enough for its disappointments, as Moyn understands them, to be laid at the feet of Christianity rather than secularism. One sees why Moyn wants to make this move; it helps him to open the way for optimism about alternative secular visions of the future that would not be so tainted by “reactionary” Christianity. But this agenda comes at the cost of too schematic and selective a history in four respects: its generalization about the relationship between Christianity and rights, its identification of Christianity with the vague category of “conservatism”, its marginalization of Protestant voices, and its elision of the distinctions between Cold War anti-Communism and anti-secularism simpliciter.
Firstly, in arguing that rights are fundamentally foreign to Christian tradition, Moyn is making a more controversial claim than he acknowledges. As Annabel Brett chronicles in her recent contribution to the edited volume Revisiting the Origins of Human Rights (2015, Cambridge), an 1879 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII did cast “the rights of man” as a product of villainous Enlightenment individualism, thereby establishing the context in which Jacques Maritain would have to actively rehabilitate rights for twentieth-century Catholic theology. But this schema of rights and Christianity playing on opposing teams—which Moyn readily adopts—needs itself to be recognized as a nineteenth-century historical artifact. Brett and other historians have written much on the place of rights in the thought of scholastic Thomists centuries beforehand. Brett’s objective in her 2015 piece is not to ‘claim’ rights for Catholicism, but rather to show that thinking about rights has always been contextually specific. Natural rights were embedded, for the scholastics, in a whole intricate system that also concerned obligations and duties to the community, laws to which one was subject, and liability to severe penalties. In other words, rights were not thought of as trump cards against society’s actions but as components of a just social order. So when Moyn proposes that 1930s Catholicism distorted rights-talk by adopting it while subordinating it to natural law and a priority of communal flourishing, it is surprising to see him assert that this was a radically new move in Christian history.
It is also rather unexpected for Moyn to describe this as a process of “capturing”, whereby “the language of rights was extricated from the legacy of the French Revolution.” (CHR, 9-10) In The Last Utopia, Moyn had been at pains to point out (contra Lynn Hunt) that, “the rights of the revolutionary era were very much embodied in the politics of the state, crystallizing in a scheme worlds away from the political meaning human rights would have later.” (LU, 25) In other words, whereas human rights came in the latter half of the twentieth century to be associated with transnational human solidarity and opposition to state violence, the revolutionary ‘rights of man’ of 1789 were tied up with a nationalist project advanced through violence. Even in his own contribution to the recent Revisiting volume, a subtle and intriguing article on Giuseppe Mazzini, Moyn tells us again that, “If rights surged as fundamental political concepts, they did so in an initially indissoluble connection with national sovereignty.” (GM, 122) But if his contention is that the Christian version of human rights lamentably subordinated the individual to a community of moral order, it is hard to understand how different in kind this is from a revolutionary vision of rights that subordinated the individual to the mission of state sovereignty. Surely the answer here is Brett’s: that rights-talk is usually enmeshed in a broader discussion about what society is for and what human flourishing looks like. Illuminating the history of ‘rights’, then, requires one to get inside a series of specific worldviews, rather than tracing the simple contours of a long-term ideological tussle. Moyn has doubled back to the French Revolution because it gives him a secular rights tradition to pit against a Christian one, a ‘road not taken’ to offer as a corrective. But this definitive fork in the road is hard to find when we go looking for it.
Also overly schematic is Moyn’s treatment of Christianity as synonymous with ideological “conservatism”. “Never—or almost never—is religion merely politics,” he writes, but in Christian Human Rights it’s nearly always conservative politics. (CHR, 20) Citing Wolfram Kaiser’s work, for example, Moyn argues that “conservative rule took root” in Western Europe after World War II, “judging by the spectacular rise of Christian Democratic politics and the belief systems of many of Europeanization’s most influential advocates.” (CHR, 16) But here Moyn has simply identified the fact that a party or person was Christian as adequate demonstration of conservatism. In contrast, the 2007 Kaiser article cited by Moyn actually tracks the deep divisions between leftist and more right-leaning Christian Democratic parties across Europe. Rather than consider that multiplicity, Moyn hones in on a specific example—Ireland—that will showcase the sort of social conservatism he wishes to identify with Christian democracy in general. The first chapter of Christian Human Rights concerns the writing of the 1937 Irish constitution, the earliest to feature “dignity” in its preamble. Moyn’s work here is new, and it is fascinating to trace with him how language about the dignity of the person made its speedy journey in 1937 from papal pronouncements to the new Irish Constitution, through the agency of Éamon de Valera and his associates. While Moyn is careful to point out that de Valera was never attracted to fascism (unlike some Catholic politicians on the Continent), he is correct to note that the constitution’s drafters perceived an appeal to dignity to be consistent with the codification of various other Catholic commitments that Moyn and most of his contemporary readers find repugnantly socially conservative—such as traditionalist views of the family, gender, marriage, property-holding, and Church-state relations. But it’s unclear that it makes sense to marshal this evidence as part of the case for “the secret history of dignity” as a conservative term of art. (CHR, 25) Would we unmask “justice” or “liberty” in the American preamble as “conservative” concepts because the U.S. Constitution in which they featured still countenanced slavery? We might say they rang hollow, or were distorted by the sanctity of “property”, but those are rather different arguments. There’s no doubt that Ireland’s 1937 constitution was decidedly Catholic and socially conservative; it is less obvious that this fact poisons the well of “dignity” as a conceptual basis for human rights.
Moyn himself is quick to acknowledge that the Irish case was not the direct source of inspiration for subsequent uses of “dignity” in other constitutions and in Christian human rights discourse; he describes it instead as “a tape recorder that, because it was on at the right time, captures the moment in which an accident happened that still determines our moral speech.” (CHR, 60) But by playing this tape first, Moyn sets the mood music. When he offers subsequent examples of how “dignity” is used by Christian human rights thinkers in the 1930s and 1940s and labels such views “conservative”, the reader is likely to take Irish social conservatism as a proxy for what he means. On closer examination, however, Moyn rarely substantiates a direct link between dignity and such social conservatism again. Instead, what Moyn chiefly means by “conservatism” is that the concept of dignity, as formulated in the 1930s and 1940s, had “a communitarian and religious streak.” (CHR, 53) The people who advanced it believed in speaking of persons embedded in community, rather than atomistic individuals, and they generally believed in a (Christian) God. Certainly this was true of Jacques Maritain, of Charles Malik, of Carlos Romulo—all examples that Moyn convincingly cites. His emphasis on this cast of characters will deservedly feature in citations by other historians in the years ahead. Yet if Moyn consistently replaced “conservative” with “communitarian” throughout the book, or clarified the places where what he means by calling Christian human rights “conservative” is that they were Christian, one imagines it would enable a more fruitful discussion. Such a treatment would invite us into the ideas of these thinkers, rather than reducing them to a single ideological dimension. A “communitarian” legacy could be debated and elucidated, including by leftists who think the liberal emphasis on the individual has limited the potential for radically transformative social solidarity; a “conservative” legacy, for the political audience whom Moyn imagines himself addressing, can only be “troubling”, “lamentable”, and “disturbing”. (CHR, 20; 23; 32) The “evanescent Christian left,” in Moyn’s turn of phrase, is speedily dismissed to avoid muddying the waters. (CHR, 21)
In the book’s second chapter, where Moyn charts the development of ideas about “the dignity of the person” by Jacques Maritain and others, his decision to frame the story as a “reinvention of conservatism” again feels like a lens contrived at the outset rather than one that emerges from the material. (CHR, 67) Moyn certainly shows that a community of French thinkers led by Emmanuel Mounier took Maritain’s 1925 discussion of the person in a conservative and fascistic direction. But since he traces the line of personalism’s influence on the Vatican and broader discourses through Maritain rather than Mounier, his argument that Maritain is reactionary-by-association needs to bear a lot of weight. Unfortunately, that argument is chiefly based on Maritain’s early association with the monarchist group Action Française—an organization he denounced in 1926—and on the fact that Maritain wrote his first explicitly political personalist material in response to Mounier. Yet it doesn’t follow that being provoked to counter a conservative spin on one’s ideas demonstrates that those ideas really are conservative in essence. Moyn does little to trace for the reader the actual development of Maritain’s own thought. One wishes for some more intellectual history here, despite Moyn’s avowed view that ideological history is the more appropriate lens on the rhetoric of human rights and dignity.
A further difficulty is that Moyn is so focused on arguing that the postwar adoption of human rights is not primarily due to Holocaust memory—which seems correct—that he glosses over the possibility that a sincere sense of horror and violation, rather than ideological strategy alone, helped provoke the emergence of personalism. He does hint at this other dimension, such as when quoting Charles de Visscher’s 1947 comment that personalism “has arisen against the nameless abuses that we have witnessed”, and acknowledging that Maritain was already defending “a pluralism founded on the dignity of the human person” when speaking on the Jewish question in 1937-8. (CHR, 66; 81) But to Moyn, what matters most is the political use of an idea rather than its apparent wellsprings. Christian personalism was marshaled against Communist totalitarianism, thus it was ideological conservatism. A ‘third way’ is usually a disguise; its adherents ultimately fall on one side of the parapet or the other, and if they seem momentarily missing from the battlefield, it is merely because they are tunneling. Moyn tells us that, “Universalistic and formalistic languages always have a historically specific and ideologically particular meaning, which it is the mission of historians to seek out,” but the reader might wonder why historical specificity seems to consistently boil down to ideological particularity alone. (CHR, 67) Principled feeling can also be historically specific.
Moyn might reply that the hagiography of the prophets of dignity is well-covered by others. Or, as he wrote in Human Rights and the Uses of History (2014), that “sentimentalist politics—including humanitarian intervention—can be profoundly diversionary from the real workings of power, or even provide it with new pretexts of its deployment.” (HRUH, 44) This is certainly true, and Moyn’s skeptical eye often enables him to cast new light on well-worn ground. He is a bracing interrogator of old pieties. But the hermeneutics of suspicion can also become its own set of blinders. To dismiss Maritain’s link between natural law and human rights as “sleight of hand” is to eschew the careful task of opening it up and examining the workings. (CHR, 83) And to write as though apparent moral belief is always a manipulative guise for power, rather than sometimes a source of genuine social power in its own right, is the opposite of realism. Finally—as we’ll see at the close—Moyn is really too much in earnest himself to be quite so ungenerous about the possibility of earnestness in others, even Christians.
Perhaps one of the greatest limitations of Moyn’s simplified ideological narrative, however, is its difficulty in accommodating the Protestant and American sides of the story. He tries to inoculate his account against this criticism in various places: by conceding that the American Catholic liberals behind The Voice for Human Rights were trumpeting “human rights” in 1939, a few years before Maritain did; by acknowledging that Protestantism is under-researched “even though it featured its own versions of Christian human rights and indeed some of the earliest”; and by noting that, after the Second World War, American Protestants were “by any standard most responsible” for the internationalization of “the entire notion of human rights”. (CHR, 78; 19; 148) Always generous to younger scholars, Moyn refers the reader to excellent recent work on mid-century American Protestantism by Gene Zubovich and others. No book can do everything, and if this text were limited to ‘European Catholic human rights’, such asides might suffice. Yet although Moyn doesn’t want to present extensive work on American Protestantism, he does want to fold it into his overarching analysis. So we are told briefly of “a parallel trajectory” whereby “personalism and the rise of rights as a bulwark against totalitarianism also burgeoned within Protestant networks across the same period.” (CHR, 17-18) One example of this parallel development, Moyn notes, is the personalist theology of the young John Rawls, who as an Episcopalian undergraduate at Princeton penned a 1942 thesis on Christian ethics as right relations between persons in community. But Rawls’s case actually helps to illuminate how the American Protestant trajectory differed from Moyn’s narrative about personalism and rights in the European Catholic context.
Rawls’s personalism was shaped by that of his teacher George F. Thomas, who told his Princeton students in 1940 that the ideal of human good “is the fulfillment of personality in a community of free men capable of taking responsibility for their own destiny.” This ideal, Thomas opined, was based in a belief in human worth which could be put both in terms of “the Greek and eighteenth century view” of human beings as rational and autonomous, and in terms of “the Hebrew vision of man as a creature made in the image of God and the Christian vision of him as a son of God.” The former Enlightenment vision of human beings was “an indispensable aspect of the democratic theory”, while the latter appeal to the image of God justified “the modern democratic faith” even when people failed to behave rationally and autonomously. (Thomas, 1940, 20-21) Thomas’s dual picture aligns with much of what has been written by American historians about the wartime twinning of “Judeo-Christian” religion and democracy. What it underscores, however, is how neither the Enlightenment in general nor the French Revolution specifically loomed as a bogeyman for most American Protestants. Allying Christianity with talk of democracy, autonomy, and rights did not strike any of Rawls’s teachers as an about-face, in contrast to how Moyn characterizes the move among European Catholics. Indeed, these instructors often implied that such commitments were Protestant at their core. Echoing his professor E. Harris Harbison, a Protestant historian of the Reformation, Rawls opined in his thesis that European history had been repeatedly marred by the rise to power of “closed groups”, beginning with “the Roman Church who called everyone outside the pale heretics” and ending with Nazism. (Rawls, 1942/2009, 198)
In Rawls’s version of personalism, largely borrowed from the Swiss Reformed theologian Emil Brunner, it was the Protestant intensity of the individual person’s relationship with God that could break down the barriers of such “closed groups” to enable universal community. Encountering other persons in all their depth was a path by analogy into interpersonal encounter with God, and vice versa. Brunner’s 1937 book Man in Revolt drew inspiration on this front from the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s description of the “I-Thou” relationship, and from the Christian existentialism of Ferdinand Ebner. And Brunner, Buber, and Ebner had all been influenced by Søren Kierkegaard’s impassioned picture of the relationship between God and man, although they boldly extended it to apply to relations between human beings. So Rawls’s youthful writings showcase the development of a line of Protestant thought according to which a “community” was a networked web of relationships, rather than a wheel in which every individual related like a spoke to God at the hub, or a solid collective into which all personhood was subsumed. This was a fundamentally subject-oriented picture, whereas Moyn sees Christian personalism as necessarily implying “subjugation” to an “objective morality”. (CHR, 10; 87) Moyn writes skeptically of “personalist conceptions of dignity purporting to leave behind the choice between the individual and the collective” (CHR, 98, emphasis added), but he never actually looks at how the Protestant personalists thought they’d achieved that intermediate position.
That story matters; as Terence Renaud has shown, Brunner’s Man in Revolt provided a key basis for the personalist consensus reached by Protestant ecumenical leaders at their 1937 Oxford conference. While Reinhold Niebuhr’s talk of paradox and crisis helped to crystallize a sense of urgency, it was Brunner’s relational ethics combined with the political activism of liberal Protestantism that seemed to offer a fruitful way out. This development is not usefully described as “conservative” retrenchment. It merits much closer scrutiny, especially since Moyn acknowledges that the 1937 Oxford proceedings shaped the perspective of many internationalist Protestants who helped to forge the language of human rights. Furthermore, given that Maritain—himself the product of a Parisian liberal Protestant milieu before his conversion to Catholicism at age 24—was actually on the Princeton faculty with the likes of George Thomas when he first linked the dignity of the person to human rights in 1942, the American Protestant and European Catholic stories really should be treated as robustly intertwined.
More attention to the Protestant side of the discourse would also complicate Moyn’s contrast between dignity as it was meant by Christian personalists and the type of Kantian dignity that philosophers now attribute to Rawls. There is in fact a much more continuous bridge between the two than Moyn allows. It was out of Rawls’s liberal and personalist Protestantism that he developed an idiosyncratic liberal naturalist position over the 1950s, which formed the core of A Theory of Justice and was only adapted into a Kantian key quite late in the game. Rawls wrote more often of “recognition” than “dignity”, but personalism was embedded in his ideas throughout. Moyn’s juxtaposition of the two types of dignity, then, can teach us a great deal, but we won’t best illuminate their relationship by reducing the history here to an ideological story.
In light of all the foregoing, Moyn’s selection of the German Lutheran historian Gerhard Ritter as the chief Protestant character for his story feels frustratingly inapt. To be sure, Moyn has written a fascinating stand-alone paper on Ritter, who in 1948 authored the earliest attempt at a history of human rights. But to justify its inclusion as this book’s third chapter, Moyn has to argue that Ritter is suitably emblematic. He is certainly emblematic of what Moyn wants to argue, but not of Protestant personalism. Ritter was a conservative, nationalist—albeit anti-Nazi—German Protestant. He made common cause with the European Catholics and Anglo-American Protestants trumpeting human rights after the war because he thought their account of the values of the Christian West would enable him to salvage a laudable pre-Nazi past for Germany. Moyn is explicit about Ritter’s ulterior motives. If his point were merely that endorsing human rights could serve a variety of ends, Ritter would be a fine exemplar. Ritter’s case also illustrates the speed with which human rights were weaponized in order to claim the moral high ground for the West in the Cold War. But as with Moyn’s discussion of Mounier in the prior chapter, there’s a significant leap from arguing that dignity or human rights could be co-opted by conservatives to arguing that such ideas were themselves a “conservative achievement.” (CHR, 23) Ritter was clearly riding the coattails of human rights discourse, not the other way around, and Moyn presents little evidence that Ritter’s way of framing human rights influenced others. So we are left to wonder: when Moyn writes that, “While Ritter’s history is selective, appropriative, and manipulative, the very flaws in his approach provide a bracing reminder of how easy it was—as it clearly still is—to construct a field with the goal of constructing a usable past for new imperatives,” is he really criticizing other contemporary historians of human rights, or is he aiming a wink at his own readers? (CHR, 103)
The uses for which Moyn is seeking to construct a past become especially clear in his fourth and final chapter, which focuses on the legacy of a right to religious freedom. In The Last Utopia, Moyn wrote that Protestant theories of conscience “made their bequest to the modern human rights canon by accident”—a peculiar turn of phrase for a book trying to show that all historical developments are accidental in a deep sense, rather than teleological. (LU, 18) Moyn was intent on underscoring that Christianity deserved no credit for contemporary ideas about human rights. In Christian Human Rights, however, he has changed his mind. Moyn is alarmed that the right to religious freedom in the European Convention on Human Rights has been construed, in recent years, to allow European governments to enact bans on elements of Islamic practice like hijabs and minarets. Aware that many of these bans have been trumpeted by secularists, Moyn wants to nonetheless absolve the secular rights tradition of this fault by showing it to be an insidious bequest of Christian rights-talk. His argument is: (1) that the likes of Charles Malik, a drafter of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, considered the right to religious freedom foremost among all human rights; (2) that in the Cold War era, the right to religious freedom was used as a stick to beat secular Communism with; (3) that in this Cold War context, the democratic way of life meant Christian democracy to many Europeans; and (4) that therefore the religious freedom being defended was really the freedom to be Christian. The implicit assumption of special complementarity between Christianity and democracy is what has led Europeans to apply such a different standard to Islam decades later, Moyn argues. The provision for religious freedom in the European Convention was always subordinated to the demands of democratic society, but only now is that limitation being invoked. Many of the official legal arguments against the hijab or niqab in France, for example, suggest that wearing such items threatens the cohesiveness of the public sphere.
Moyn is right that there’s clearly a double standard at work here, but he doesn’t give us good reasons to think it’s directly rooted in the Christian human rights tradition, rather than in straightforward xenophobia. Indeed, it’s somewhat bizarre to argue that twentieth-century Christians are the source of a viewpoint that enables the state to limit Muslim religious freedom in order to protect the public sphere, when the relevant language in the European Convention directly echoes Article 10 of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man: “No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.” Rather inconveniently, we seem to have a legacy of the French Revolution on our hands. And as Moyn acknowledges, the European Convention has only been interpreted as a limit on Muslim practice since the collapse in active Christian affiliation on the Continent. So Moyn’s argument that this manner of deploying the freedom of conscience provision in the European Convention is really a legacy of Christian human rights has to hang entirely on the fact that it was employed during the Cold War to uphold West Germany’s ban on the Communist Party, and thus against secularists, and so cannot be considered part of “the secularist enterprise.” (CHR, 140) Through this genealogy, secularists are rendered as truly the oppressed predecessors of contemporary European Muslims, and only their oppressors by the accident of inheriting a basically Christian error. This contorted move, however, elides too many distinctions. While Western critics did marshal the labels of secularism and atheism against the Soviets, the historian has to treat twentieth-century Communism as its own phenomenon, not as just another manifestation of some unbroken ‘secular’ tradition. Perhaps it is surprising that a French Revolutionary frame on freedom of conscience, which would be employed by European secularists in the twenty-first century, could in the interim be used against secular Communists. But these historical moments are sufficiently distinct that there is nothing inherently contradictory about such reversals. And one can be beaten with a weapon of one’s own fashioning. Moyn’s point that the ideological battle lines of the Cold War caused the West to coalesce around a more conservative, religious, and capitalist identity, in contrast to the leftist, secularist, communism of the Soviet Union, is universally acknowledged. To go on treating those three categories (political, religious, and economic) as indelibly linked, however, is to universalize ideological Cold War simplifications that instead demand interrogation and complication from the historian.
Moyn’s fundamental objective in Christian Human Rights, however, is not a historical one; he is aiming to clear the way for a new and improved left-wing secularism. Thus his sudden concern with ascribing the failings of contemporary human rights discourse to its Christian heritage. If, rather than being a secular form of utopianism, human rights talk is hopelessly compromised by Christian influences, then it becomes more reasonable to hope that the seeds of secularism, planted anew in purer soil, can grow into something more robust. “The Muslim headscarf cases show contemporary human rights to be not too secular but not secular enough,” Moyn concludes in his fourth chapter. (CHR, 167) His argument is a secular parallel to G.K Chesterton’s famous remark that, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” (Chesterton, 1910, 48)
Nor do the parallels end there. Moyn’s extraordinary epilogue features a litany of past human failures that reads much like a collective confession of sins: errors of thought, word, and deed, things done and left undone, hearts astray and neighbors forgotten. The Christian critic could readily nod along; Karl Barth would convict the Church even more strongly. Where the Christian confession would appeal to salvation through Christ, however, Moyn is impatient; two millennia is long enough to know that there will be no help from that quarter. He has already made his appraisal of Christianity clear throughout the book: “patriarchy in so many forms” was perhaps Christianity’s “most fundamental commitment”, while “great art” was surely “Christianity’s most impressive contribution to human affairs.” (CHR, 7; 176) Outside that aesthetic realm, Moyn asserts that Christianity only leads to a posture of resignation. It is “fearful of threats, anxious about sin, and fatalistic about human possibilities”, so it is little surprise that a “congenitally Christian ambience” gave birth to a human rights discourse that merely attempts to prevent the worst atrocities rather than promoting the best vision of society. (CHR, 170-1)
Secular utopianism, on the other hand, has only had a short while to transform the world, and Moyn thinks it deserves more time. But it needs to learn from Christianity’s failures. Like Christianity, human rights discourse receives plenty of official lip service, but has left both the operations of power politics and the workings of the human heart too unchanged. The root problem, Moyn suggests, lies with men and women themselves. Moyn knows that his lament at the continuing hardness of the human heart echoes that of many Christian thinkers, but he imagines that the chastened Christian usually settles for hope in the hereafter, or in divine intervention, whereas the secularist must demand results in the here-and-now through human agency alone. In other words, he seconds Max Weber’s lesson that “nothing is gained by yearning and tarrying alone, and we shall act differently.” Where Weber advocated stoical perseverance in the face of the disenchanted world, however, Moyn’s call for simultaneous institutional and internal revolution sounds more like the earnest romanticism of Che Guevara in 1965: “To build communism it is necessary, simultaneous with the new material foundations, to build the new man and woman.” Or, as another might put it, “Behold, I am making all things new.” If the human rights project is not actually transforming states, hearts, and minds, Moyn tells us, then it demands replacement. It is one of the book’s striking ironies that he will settle for little less than the Kingdom of God, than the Transfiguration—but all in the immanent frame.
In the quest to achieve a spiritual vision through secular means, however, Moyn realizes there may be a need to borrow somewhat from religion’s playbook. From The Last Utopia to Christian Human Rights, Moyn has exhibited an ambivalent attitude about the fact that Amnesty International catalyzed the political success of human rights through the deployment of “techniques” borrowed from religion. In 2010 he chronicled how Amnesty crafted campaigns that resonated with participants’ moral and religious sensibilities, through small group rituals like candle-lighting and direct emotional appeals on behalf of specific tortured and imprisoned individuals. (LU, 130-1) As Moyn wrote in 2014, “Using standard techniques of moral regulation—this time for the good—Amnesty succeeded in making the state’s infliction of extreme physical pain anathema, thought it was once a customary part of most cultures.” (HRUH, 102) Towards the end of that 2014 book, he urged the contemporary human rights movement to turn again to such grassroots techniques. And in 2015, he argues that Christianity has had far broader popular success than the contemporary human rights movement because “Christians took upon themselves to induce affiliation through a much larger range of techniques.” (CHR, 175) Christianity illustrates “how a long fuse and more pervasive techniques can lead advocacy toward a belated global explosion.” (CHR, 176) But can the secular utopian usefully imitate this history? Christians might protest that the Holy Spirit and the power of revelation were at work in church history as well. And Weber would warn that, “If one tries intellectually to construe new religions without a new and genuine prophecy, then, in an inner sense, something similar will result, but with still worse effects. And academic prophecy, finally, will create only fanatical sects but never a genuine community.”
Moyn is hoping Weber is wrong—Christian Human Rights is an academic prophecy seeking to point the way for a future secular social movement to surpass both human rights and Christianity. But Moyn does seem to harbor a related worry about emulating religion’s more successful tactics. His use of the term “techniques”—where others might refer to spiritual or community practices—betrays his fear that such methods might be inherently manipulative. Throughout Christian Human Rights, Moyn consistently identifies “moral governance” upholding an objective “moral order” as an intrinsically “conservative” aim. What then to think of Amnesty’s “moral regulation”? And if it is a lamentable conservative legacy, why imitate it?
Perhaps because community practices are like the candle wax that surrounds the wick of pure conviction about collective imperatives: the wax may seem to conceal the wick and impede its burning, but in fact a wick without wax burns up quickly and illuminates little. Plenty of leftists have recognized this point, and therefore advocated “moral regulation” to advance their own agendas. Guevara, for example, noted in “Socialism and man in Cuba” that the bulk of the populace “must be subject to incentives and pressures of a certain intensity” in order to make new men and women. “For total success a series of mechanisms, of revolutionary institutions, is needed.” He understood himself to be calling for a process of education, but Cold War conservatism could easily make out the threat of totalitarianism in his remarks, just as a secular leftist can easily make out the threat of “subjugation” embedded in Christian democracy.
The path forward here, it seems, is to acknowledge that any hope of social improvement will always depend on embedding social norms and values in the life of a community, both implicitly and explicitly. Doing so together is a respectable, communal aspect of self-governance, but will also always entail the risk of sliding into oppression. So we’re stuck in dynamic equilibrium, attempting “to leave behind the choice between the individual and the collective” and strike a balance between moral imperatives and personal freedom. This sounds, of course, suspiciously like the third-way communitarian personalism that Moyn attempts to dismiss as veiled conservatism throughout Christian Human Rights. But it isn’t in the interest of his deeper purposes to dismiss it.
Moyn, after all, is championing his own set of moral imperatives; he clearly thinks that the human rights movement has wrongly sidelined the economic demands at the heart of a genuine leftist agenda. Indeed, at one point he seems to indicate that his whole quarrel is really with the postwar embrace of Christian democracy as an instrument for “the restabilization of bourgeois Europe” and middle-class capitalist rule, rather than with Christian personalism as such. (CHR, 171) Perhaps this real agenda leaves him more common cause with the personalists than he has led us to expect. In his recent article on Mazzini, for example, he even suggests that a position between individualism and collectivism is the most fruitful next frontier. As he writes:
Indeed, a fair recovery of [Mazzini’s] emphasis on duties brings into view something rather different. It is less modest and more collectivist than most contemporary visions of cosmopolitanism in philosophy, focused as they have been so far on formal individual entitlements at the expense of real interdependence. (GM, 137)
We might compare these comments from Moyn with a further quotation from George F. Thomas’s 1940 lecture, the same one in which he set out the personalism he taught to Rawls:
We have shown ourselves more eager to assert our rights than to acknowledge our duties. Too often we have put our own interests, and those of our group, above the welfare of the community as a whole. Moreover, individualism, with its exclusive emphasis upon liberties and rights, has had much to do with the alarming increase of economic inequality since the Civil War. (Thomas, 1940, 19)
In their emphasis on duties alongside rights and their criticism of allowing individual liberty to excuse material inequality, Thomas’s and Moyn’s statements bear an uncanny resemblance despite the 75 years that separate them.
Nor was Thomas—or American Protestantism—alone in framing the challenge for midcentury Christian personalism in this vein. Maritain too saw the need for a similar balancing act. As wrote in 1949:
Will the progressive transformation of society that we are facing today be able to manifest the power of freedom and justice and of spiritual energies by securing…individual liberty as well as the autonomy of groups starting from the bottom, the accession of new classes to ownership and power and the freedoms claimed by science and intelligence in quest of truth, as well as by the word of God in quest of human hearts? (Maritain, 1949, 200)
Here we have progress and religious freedom and individual liberty and economic empowerment all mixed up together. The details of history, as ever, are more complicated than our schematic dichotomies. Moyn is not wrong that Christian personalism became entangled with Cold War conservatism, but he is mistaken in his move to boil it down to that entanglement alone. Given his own hopes for the next utopia, he needs perhaps to bet on personalism having a far more fruitful legacy than this book allows.
Posted on 15 February 2016
P. MACKENZIE BOK has recently completed her doctorate in history at the University of Cambridge, on the young John Rawls and his path to A Theory of Justice, (Belknap Press, 1971). She is now working on the book version of the project, and has published an article in Modern Intellectual History on Rawls’s post-Protestant ethics.