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Christian Human Rights

In Christian Human Rights, Samuel Moyn asserts that the rise of human rights after World War II was prefigured and inspired by a defense of the dignity of the human person that first arose in Christian churches and religious thought in the years just prior to the outbreak of the war.

Christian Human Rights

Samuel Moyn

2015 | 264 pages | Cloth $24.95
Political Science
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. The Secret History of Human Dignity
Chapter 2. The Human Person and the Reformulation of Conservatism
Chapter 3. The First Historian of Human Rights
Chapter 4. From Communist to Muslim: Religious Freedom and Christian Legacies


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Christmas Day, 1942. The outcome of World War II was undecided. A month before, the tide at Stalingrad had turned against the Germans; just two days before, General Erich von Manstein had abandoned his efforts to relieve the Wehrmacht's doomed Sixth Army. Still, there was no telling that the extraordinary German strength in the war on display so far would now ebb quickly. Nonetheless, the Roman Catholic pope, Pius XII, had something new to say.

The Americans had formally entered the war a year before, but the Allies would not reach mainland Italy for another nine months, or make it to Rome for a year and a half. The pope felt himself in dire straits. His relationship with Benito Mussolini had long since soured, and he was a prisoner in his own tiny Roman domain. As for the Jews, the worst victims of the conflict, millions were dead already; the victims at Babi Yar had lain in their ravine for more than a year; Treblinka, the most infernal death camp, had begun killing operations six months before and much of its grim work was already complete.

Officially, of course, the papacy and its leader were neutral in the war, and did not play politics. Many of Pius's flock, however, were to be found on all sides of the war. To the extent recent observers have revisited Pius's Christmas message, it has been to argue about whether he could or should have said more about the Holocaust than he did. But the real interest in the message is what the pontiff was for, not what he was against. In this fight, Christianity stood for values, and in the perspective of world history, Pius XII had some new ones.

On that day, the appeal to reaffirm faith in the dignity of the human person, and in the rights that follow from that dignity, reached unprecedented heights of public visibility. The very first of the five peace points that Pius XII offered that day ran as follows:

Dignity of the Human Person. He who would have the Star of Peace shine out and stand over society should cooperate, for his part, in giving back to the human person the dignity given to it by God from the very beginning . . . He should uphold respect for and the practical realization of . . . fundamental personal rights . . . The cure of this situation becomes feasible when we awaken again the consciousness of a juridical order resting on the supreme dominion of God, and safeguarded from all human whims; a consciousness of an order which stretches forth its arm, in protection or punishment, over the unforgettable rights of man and protects them against the attacks of every human power.
It was a critical turning point, one that defines history since, if not exactly in ways that Pius XII intended.

People now treat such affirmations, and especially the notion that human dignity provides the foundation for universal human rights, as a set of conventional and enduring truths. Yet it was all rather new at the time. The Roman Catholic Church had previously rejected the hitherto secular and liberal language of human rights. But now the pope turned to it, making human dignity its new basis. Around the same time, ecumenical formations of transatlantic Protestant elites proclaimed human rights to be the key to future world order. The communion between human rights and Christianity was therefore a novel and fateful departure in the history of political discourse.

Undoubtedly, the pope's first peace point was the supreme, influential, and most publicly prominent invocation of human dignity during World War II proper and likely in the whole history of political claim-making to that date. It gave Christian "personalism" a broad hearing, attaching supreme ethical significance to human beings agonizingly caught between individualist atomism without community and "totalitarian" statehood without freedom. Alongside novel Protestant discussion, it was also at or near the top of the list of prominent wartime invocations of the basic idea of universal human rights, especially when understood as a framework—as Pius XII would express it very clearly two years later in his 1944 Christmas message—of world and not merely state order. But what did such conceptions mean as they made their way into, and did much to define, democratic and international ideals after the war?

The history of human rights in the 1940s was hardly just a matter of Christians merely adopting longstanding rhetoric or even commitments, in spite of the long prior history of rights in various forms and settings. Amplifying the importance of human rights before a vast public, Pius's statement also recrafted the meaning of the principles it merely claimed to recall to importance. It made what had been secular and liberal into a set of values that were now religious and conservative. And it provided an inkling of how Christians would come to defend the postwar democracies they later founded in Western Europe, which were religious and conservative in nature. This book tells the story of how this happened.


The ideological association of Christianity and human rights depended on contingent and timebound circumstance no later than the 1940s and shortly before. Far from teaching us simply about the Christian invention of human rights in the 1940s, interesting and important as that development was, the history of this crystallizing moment casts light on the fortunes of the concept as a whole. Not the least of the reasons is that it turns out to be quite difficult to find non-Christians who enthused about human rights, and more especially their basis in human dignity, in the age. The history of Christian human rights in the 1940s is the major part of the history of human rights generally at the time, before the principles became the slogan of a mass movements and a central element of contemporary international law.

Mainstream observers are generally unaware of—for their secular historians have nervously bypassed—the Christian incarnation of human rights, which interferes with their preferred understandings of today's highest principles. Meanwhile, those interested in Christian sources, overwhelmingly Christians themselves, are prone to misinterpret them. The proposition that human rights arose with profound connections to Christian contexts is normally defended, in both public discourse and scholarly arguments, in a highly abstract way and about long ago events. It was from "the biblical conception of man," Pope John Paul II noted in 2003, that "Europe drew the best of its humanistic culture, and, not least, advanced the dignity of the person as the subject of inalienable rights." Preference for classic sources that supposedly cast the die for Christianity's advocacy of human rights across the millennia is especially evident among certain Christians who most want to take credit for what have become the premier values of the day, precisely in view of their contemporary prestige. According to such views, it is rather old Christian lineages—stretching from the Annunciation to the Reformation—that help explain the existence, shape, and prestige of the idea of human rights today.

Looking back that far is not a mere distraction. No one could plausibly claim—and no one ever has—that the history of human rights is one of wholly discontinuous novelty, whether in the 1940s or after. But radical departures nonetheless occurred very late in Christian history, even if they were unfailingly represented as consistent with what came before: this is how "the invention of tradition" most frequently works. 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. Novelty always comes about not ex nihilo but from a fragmentary past that is coaxed into more robust form. Even partial continuity across time often proceeds through rediscovery and reactivation of lost possibilities and underemphasized realities. Many of those who want the ideological association of Christianity and human rights to be deep and lasting are participants in such inventions rather than analysts of them, for they play down or pass over the fact that Christianity had mostly stood for values inimical to those we now associate with human rights. It took a set of wrenching experiences for Christianity to come to seem favorable to them. This book tries to understand how large an impact those experiences made—and how much continuity they left behind.

The truth is that Europe and therefore the modern world drew nearly everything from Christianity in the long term. It would be fictitious to retrospectively edit the long and tumultuous history of Europe, as if everything we liked about the outcomes were due to its hegemonic religion, while the rest was an unfortunate accident or someone else's fault. And to the extent this is true, the challenge of isolating the crucial period for a strong ideological link of Christianity with human rights changes. It means looking not so much at Jesus (or even at the Reformation), but at novel mid-twentieth century interpretations of what his teachings demand, to understand how the huge set of possibilities the Christian legacy bequeathed was winnowed down.

The trouble, after all, is not so much that Christianity accounts for nothing, as that it accounts for everything. Without Christianity, our commitment to the moral equality of human beings is unlikely to have come about, but by itself this had no bearing on most forms of political equality—whether between Christians and Jews, whites and blacks, civilized and savage, or men and women. That had been true for millennia, and it was mostly still true on Christmas Day, 1942. If the winnowing of Christian values was not complete (and never is, since traditions are never set), it was above all because the war was undecided. Pius's peace points are fascinating because they introduce human dignity and rights before the war's outcome was clear.

It was not just that over its long trajectory, Christianity had stood for the star of peace, but also the dogs of war, when their violence was thought to serve justice; that its members had powered abolitionism in the nineteenth century, but also that slavery's defenders relied upon Christianity's long tolerance and support for the institution; that Christians stood for the spiritual kingdom, but also had served worldly empires, from Rome to modern global ones; and that, whatever the fervency of their commitment to the equality of souls, patriarchy in so many forms was perhaps their fundamental commitment. Most relevant to our purposes, Christians and Christian thought were deeply entangled in the collapse of liberal democracy on the European continent between the wars. Catholicism in particular had celebrated victories for its social teachings in the fall of liberal democracy in authoritarian Austria, Spain, and Portugal in the 1930s, and Vichy France during the war, even as a Catholic priest was the titular head of Nazi Germany's most subservient client state, Slovakia. Christians even had truck with fascism. From the pinnacle of the churches to the rank and file, only a few Christians denounced it in these years, and normally then in the name of strictly Christian ideals and interests; more acquiesced to fascism, or fervently served it, including in Nazi Germany, what some were calling "the holy reich."

And yet it is also Christians who did much and perhaps most to welcome and define the idea human rights in the 1940s, and some of its core notions such as the importance of human dignity, which nobody else was yet making central in 1942. How was this possible? Perhaps it was because, to a rather disturbing extent, human rights and especially human dignity had no necessary correlation with liberal democracy. Certainly not in 1942, when Christian leaders such as the pope were not yet (to the extent he ever became) friendly towards that regime. It would be tempting to argue that its flirtation with far-right politics and the horror of totalitarianism summoned Christianity back to its true essence, but this argument only works so long as it is recalled that the fundamental truths its partisans wanted most to honor were morally constraining, and that human rights entered the equation as a belated discovery about how to achieve enduring ends. And so when liberal democracy later came in Western Europe, it was in a conservative and religious form graced by a commitment to human dignity that signaled enormous continuity with the past, not simply learning from mistakes.


Almost unfailingly, the annunciation of human rights in the 1940s is now viewed by the general public and professional scholars as the uncomplicated triumph of liberal democracy. But the general thesis of Christian Human Rights is that through this lost and misremembered transwar era, it is equally if not more viable to regard human rights as a project of the Christian right, not the secular left. Their creation brought about a break with the revolutionary tradition and its droits de l'homme, or—better put—a successful capture of that language by forces reformulating their conservatism.

For this reason, the central question about Christian human rights in the 1940s is whether the Christian and conservative encounter with human rights—the embrace of liberal principle by forces once inimical to it—is plausibly seen as a victory for liberalism. Conservatism, to be sure, was updated through affiliation with historically liberal norms and a historically liberal language. Authoritarian solutions to crisis were taken off the table—with the very large exception of the Iberian peninsula, where they survived for several more decades. But in reviewing this process it behooves one to ask whether Christianity and conservatism were able to change liberalism more than they were changed by it. In this period, perhaps the most durable and fateful transformation was the start of a new era in liberalism—specifically, the ideological origins of religiously-inflected Cold War liberalism in the face of the specter of "totalitarianism." It was a new liberalism that substantially overlapped with conservatism, suitably corrected, after the purgation of the extreme right and for the sake of standing down the left, extreme and not so extreme. In many respects, that conservative vision of liberalism remains alive and well.

This book on the origins of Christian human rights therefore focuses most of all on the extent to which, across the 1930s and 1940s, the language of rights was extricated from the legacy of the French Revolution, the secularist mantle which the Soviet leaders were now widely seen to have assumed. And thanks to their championship within a new political formation—constitutionally organized religious democracy governed by Christian parties—a compromise between Christianity and democracy became not only palatable, but a precious resource for the future of religious values.

In the nineteenth century, what Pius XII in 1942 called the "unforgettable rights of man" were precepts that his predecessors had tried very hard to forget, because their success or failure was very closely correlated with the success or failure of secular liberalism in the wake of the French Revolution (though the latter's own Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen had celebrated rights as "sacred"). Thanks to events across the 1930s and 1940s, this was no longer true. Indeed, Christians redefined and went a long way towards capturing these precepts. They were able to do so was because of their confidence—a rather impressive epistemic confidence that many might like to have about their values—that they knew the moral truth and that it ought to be imposed everywhere. Christian human rights were part and parcel of a reformulation of conservatism in the name of a vision of moral constraint, not human emancipation or individual liberation. Jesus's truth had been intended to set men free, but not for the sake of their creative autonomy or the satisfaction of their preferences. This liberation was for the sake of subjugation: so that men and (perhaps especially) women could conform to God's will and moral order.

Much of the shift that led to the centrality of rights as part of the defense of religiously-oriented conservative democracy was due to hard experiences. It was not just that older flirtations with far right regimes increasingly failed, inciting unsavory episodes of destruction and slaughter more than they served to advance Christian values. The year 1939 seized the mind. After Hitler allied with hated Joseph Stalin—the most fearsome enemy of Christianity, even if he did the most to put Hitler down—the emerging theory of "totalitarianism" emphasized the risk that states could snuff out their civil society seemed deeply pertinent. As a result, rights could appear a formidable antidote to a new syndrome of state hypertrophy inimical to religious values. Once World War II exploded, Christian suffering in war and under occupation was tremendous, and could provide further credibility to something like human rights. There was persecution of the churches, deportation of enemies, and forced labor which understandably drew attention to the excesses of the state run amok. Recent observers have learned to insist that Christian suffering was nowhere near the worst of the era—and that Christians overwhelmingly ignored Jewish suffering to the extent they knew about it or were not participating in causing it. Moreover, for all the exile, imprisonment, and occupation that many Western European Christians underwent, the worst of Christian suffering (like the worst of Jewish suffering) occurred in the east. But East European Christians played little role in the genesis of human rights. Nevertheless, there is no reason to dispute that what Westerners saw was a contributing factor in a new rights consciousness. A commitment to moral order now incorporated personal rights after a learning process about where that commitment could lead. Not just the individualist anarchy of "modernity," paranoid responses to which had once driven reactionary political affiliations, but also now the state terror of right-wing as well as left-wing government had to be avoided.

"Human rights" now figured because, in the crucible of reaction before and during World War II when they flirted with authoritarian states (or built their own), Christians learned that the cultivation of moral constraint depended on keeping the spiritual communities that offered their vision of ethical life a home partly free from the state. Frequently, this learning occurred in the name of fidelity to many inherited hierarches, especially of gender but also of class. Christian social morality had also pushed early and insistently for moral limits on capitalist immiseration and some response to free-market outcomes, though it preferred local and non-state solutions unless Christian ideology directed the state, as occurred in different ways before, after, and during World War II. Yet by 1944 it was clear to most that it would not do for churches to fully capture Caesar's power when spiritual life was beyond his ken. It was also for this reason that, in the 1940s, human rights for Christians were a communitarian project, and not only or so much a liberal one.


There are four conventional opinions about human rights in the 1940s that, in view of these arguments, will have to be abandoned or corrected. First, there is the claim that institutions such as the United Nations, which allowed for the birth of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), deserve most scrutiny. With that understandable emphasis, however, historians have routinely ignored broader culture and ideology, in which Christianity loomed largest in early human rights discourse. Self-consciously Christian historians such as Mary Ann Glendon and John Nurser, in their pioneering works, have rightly emphasized the prominence of Christian thinking in the United Nations processes that led to the Universal Declaration, even while softpedalling how divisive and partisan this provenance made the efforts they chronicled. This book builds on theirs, but also insists on the need for a broader view of the scene as a whole, including in other locales and in circles not specifically directed at United Nations outcomes. Similarly, Mark Mazower has provocatively argued that human rights emerged in hydraulic replacement for earlier intergovernmental schemes of minority protection. Yet only a very few thought about the point of human rights in this way, and indeed the primary sites of dignity, personalism, and rights were ideological sloganeering and local politics, rather than a mostly sterile attempt to change international order or even to give entitlements legal effect within the Western European zone. Mazower's claim is genuinely helpful is seeing how religious freedom was conceived in the era, after a long period of collective protection that was now individualized. Yet a regional treaty known as the European Convention of Human Rights emerged; as a later chapter will show, however, its real significance at the time and for decades was a statement of values—often frankly Christian ones—rather than any genuine transformation of regional governance. (That has awaited our time.) Thus, attention to public discourse shows that the birth of human rights was not so much about new individualist schemes of protection as communitarian investment in moral order.

Second, historians have followed the general public in treating human rights as a response to the Holocaust. Yet few who said they cared about human dignity and rights in the 1940s said so because of the Jewish fate, and the pope is a good example of this broader truth. Christmas 1942 was the darkest hour of what one historian called "Christian Europe's darkest night," but the initial flickering of Christian human rights was not intended to illuminate the plight of the Jewish people and did not occur for their sake. Pius's much disputed priorities never fell making the Holocaust ethically central, when it was occurring or after. The same was to be true when rights and dignity became important to the political ideology of early postwar Western Europe under Christian Democratic rule. And if so, it was in part because of Christianity's recoil at Nazism more generally, and its ultimate consequences for the churches, but also because Christians were more intent on advancing their ideals and interests in new schemes of achieving order. Past atrocities mattered far less than future ascendancy. For them, human rights were a moralizing project, not simply a moral reaction.

Third, historians treat human rights as the fruit of a multicultural communion. But this notion fails to do justice to the fact that the sole abstentions to the Universal Declaration in the United Nations General Assembly reflected the sway of organized Christianity's greatest enemies, old and new: Islam and communism. Above all, it fails to reckon with the fact that Western Europe became the initial homeland of human rights (and especially human dignity, since Western European constitutions were almost the sole ones to cite that principle for a long time). In the 1940s, Western Europe initiated its long age of the political hegemony of the Christian Democratic movement: no doubt the truly crucial fact that a sober return to the history of human rights in the era must stress.

Fourth, scholars have tended to believe that human rights arose on the ruins of prior mistakes and in a total break with those political experiments—fascism, notably—undertaken by Europeans shortly before. Human rights promised a "world made new," in Glendon's phrase, which has disguised how much of the old world survived, in part because Christians who had chosen a different politics shortly before wanted continuity and not only change. Their most cherished projects, from moral community at home to missionary activity abroad, were now reformulated in terms of "human rights." For this reason, this book contends, the only way to come to grips with Christian human rights is by recognizing their short-term origins in and through the 1930s, without truncating Christian politics as if they began after 1942, when more had become apparent about what the postwar world would look like. There has been a recent call for the study of so-called "transwar" continuities, and it is clear that the story of Christian human rights demands such an approach.


Christian Human Rights begins with 1937: probably the most crucial date in the story, for it is when the discourse reached the heights of Christianity. This was because, on the basis of newly popular notions of the centrality of the "human person" to Christian political thought, it was also at this date that the expiring pope Pius XI and his soon to be successor Pius XII realized that totalitarian states of the left and even of the right threatened the moral community for which Jesus had long ago called. It was at this date that human dignity became a major item of Christian political discourse and—thanks to the coincidence that Catholic Ireland scuttled its first constitution and wrote a new one then—was embedded for the first time in constitutional history. Still, as the constitutional outcome showed, human dignity and the rights it grounded were not only compatible with conservative moral governance; such governance was their aim. A new sort of constitutionalism was born with which religious conservatism made peace and which became a powerful tool of order.

After the guns of World War II allowed this solution to become popular—and eliminated the partisans of rival ones—a minority tendency became general. As recent work by scholars such as Martin Conway and Wolfram Kaiser illustrates, in Western Europe, conservative rule took root, and ideological slogans that had been marginal before won out, judging by the spectacular rise of Christian Democratic politics and the belief systems of many of Europeanization's most influential advocates. In striking respects, this Christian-conservative complex defined the putatively global efflorescence of human rights far more generally than has been recognized. For much of the rhetoric that mushroomed in response to the period's wrenching upheaval, and certainly the enthusiasm for human rights in particular, the Catholic publicist Jacques Maritain was the most prominent expositor. In 1942, Maritain suddenly realized that human rights were not only central to Christian teaching, but that they were its salvation. Taking up his transwar trajectory in the context of Christian political thought generally, Christian Human Rights examines the popular notion of "the human person" that surged in the 1930s and was embedded in early post-World War II human rights discourse, in the Universal Declaration, Western Europe, and elsewhere. Maritain's case does not of itself, of course, explain the eventual association of human rights with postwar Christian politics. For example, Maritain himself was unconvinced of the extent to which merely party politics could usher in the new kind of Christian civilization, based on human dignity, for which he called. As a proxy for intellectual historians for a far fuller and more complicated reconstruction of the transformation of Christian politics, however, Maritain is easily the best choice.

That the first half of this book focuses more on Catholics should not imply that transatlantic Protestantism was unimportant in the invention of Christian human rights. Though the case of Catholicism provides an especially vivid example because of its drastic reassessment of rights and its creative incorporation of liberalism to save conservatism, many Protestants offered a parallel trajectory. The summer of 1937 was also when the epoch-making Oxford Conference took place, the major event in the crystallization of transatlantic Protestant "ecumenism," which laid the foundation for the World Council of Churches after World War II. It was thanks to this event that the rhetoric of "the human person" as a moral alternative to power politics—and likewise defined against the totalitarian specter—was matched in some transatlantic Protestant thinking. It found resonance from high politics to modest enterprises. Writing his senior thesis at Princeton University in the midst of World War II, then Protestant theologian John Rawls—long before he became renowned as a philosophical standardbearer of secular liberals—could affirm that "an individual is not merely an individual, but a person, and . . . a society is not a group of individuals but a community." Neo-orthodox Protestant theologians such as Emil Brunner had convinced him—much as Maritain convinced so many others—that personhood and community were mutually entailed rather than mutually exclusive.

Thus, personalism and the rise of rights as a bulwark against totalitarianism also spiked within Protestant networks across the same period, and to examine some of its stakes Christian Human Rights turns to the work of Gerhard Ritter, the dean of German historians of the period. If Maritain was the leading theoretician of human rights then, Ritter was their preeminent historian. His Lutheran understanding of where human rights had come from illustrates the cultural politics of a conservative Christian, once American ascendancy was clear and as the Soviet ally that had been so crucial to putting down National Socialism now threatened a new totalitarian outcome.

In Ritter's Germany, Protestantism was so compromised by its recent nationalist temptation that its representatives rushed to embrace a new and enlarged notion of "the Occident" (Abendland) that embraced Catholics, as well as Protestants across the English channel and even across the Atlantic ocean. The whole geography of Protestantism was shattered due to World War II, with ancestral territories under Soviet occupation and soon communist rule. Locally, the division of Germany fundamentally reshaped the confessional balance, allowing Catholicism unprecedented importance in the politics of the new federal republic. Globally, the same events, alongside the prestige of their victory, gave Anglo-Americans newfound priority as the geopolitical leadership of Protestantism that Germans had been loathe to relinquish as recently as the prior decade. Ritter's narrative of how human rights might help Germany (so long as their secularist implications were avoided) was intended to acknowledge the sudden importance of Catholics whose thought and politics appeared more central for Protestants across old confessional lines (not least in the new Christian Democratic Union that came to rule West Germany for decades). Even more, it showcased Anglo-American Protestants, not only because they had saved the West from self-imposed ruin, but also because they now were the new saviors from external threats. For this was the last reason that Christianity came to define human rights so deeply: after World War II, whose ending saw communism reach so far west, Anglo-American Protestants were regarded as the last hope to keep its secular evil from striking ever deeper into the so-called "Occident"—the age-old Christian homeland.

As a transnational intellectual and political entity after World War II, however, Protestantism is underresearched relative to its Catholic companion, even though it featured its own versions of Christian human rights and indeed some of the earliest, especially when understood as potentially global principles of a new order. It is certainly clear that Anglo-American Protestantism offered preeminent spokesmen for human rights as such principles during wartime, when Continental Europeans were still unsure about how the war would turn out. And later, when it came to the most important human right for Christians, religious freedom, Anglo-American Protestantism had to become the source of fundamental change for longstanding Catholic assumptions. After World War II, there occurred a historic compromise between the camps of Catholics and Protestants that had often been adverse before. The compromise not only defined Christian human rights to the core, but one of their most interesting contemporary legacies was also due to it.

To illustrate both facts, the book concludes with a chapter that offers some indication of the legacy of Christian human rights today, in European Court of Human Rights cases about the Muslim headscarf and the meaning of religious freedom. The reason to study the past is its legacies, and this chapter expands the frame of the inquiry to include transatlantic Protestant calls for human rights, and a new age of religious freedom in particular. It had always been the dearest right to Protestants, but after World War II it came into its own; the driving factors were the anticommunist fight and the cause of missionary Christianity, and a surprising conversion of Catholic politics to incorporate this right that popes had long anathematized even occurred. Many of the headscarf cases today originate in France, where the culprit in the discrimination against Muslims surely has been the secularist opprobrium that republicanism has always cast on religion—Christianity long before Islam. Yet at the European level, there were ideological and doctrinal sources of the approval of the headscarf bans that paradoxically originated in the opprobrium that Christianity has historically cast on secularism. The uses of the right to religious freedom to police Muslims in the present, "secular" age of a de-Christianized Europe, the book ends by suggesting, is not only a cautionary tale, showing that the historical avatar of the persecuted Muslim today is not so much the former Christian as the once feared communist enemy. It exposes how even across the vast changes separating then and now, including the ruin of organized Christianity in its onetime citadel, there are troubling if unsuspected legacies to be found.


Never—or almost never—is religion merely politics, and one of the deepest aspirations of many of those reinterpreting Christianity across the 1930s and 1940s was to put the "established disorder" of the world of politics (as one of them called it) in its place for the sake of suprapolitical truth. Often, the goal was not to move rightwards (or, for that matter, leftwards) as upwards—and thus orthogonally to politics as a whole. And yet such aspirations had inevitably this-worldly implications, especially when they found their ways into such documents as national constitutions and international declarations, or came to be mobilized by parties and publicists pursuing agendas with definite implications for the terms of collective life here and now. There are thus two equal and opposite errors to be avoided: if the first is to treat the spiritual as just the ideological mystification of the political, the second is to forget that the most otherworldly claims are ultimately significant—certainly for the secular historian—for how they affect this world.

All history, of course, is selective, and this set of soundings is no different, covering neither the totality of human rights talk in the era (much of which has been assayed in earlier scholarship) nor even of religious versions of it, and notably that of an evanescent Christian left. The sheer anarchy of the Christian response to the confusing events of the era was pronounced, even once the war wound down and options became clearer. Recently, indeed, historians have stressed how fluid the immediate aftermath of 1945 really was, before conservative political rule triumphed over its competition in Continental Europe, and many experiments failed to reach durable form, or were forcefully contained. The emphasis on volatility most definitely applies to the Christian sector of politics in 1945, where no one foresaw the triumph of Christian Democracy coming, and contingency predominated, not necessity. Ultimately, however, the renowned openendedness of the Stunde Null-the "zero hour" across Europe when the slate seemed blank and everything appeared possible—has to be reconciled with the realities of transwar continuity. If "Christian democracy" was the unanticipated harvest of the fields of contentious ideological and practical experience across an era of conflict, then it is legitimate to stress that in the end it became the victorious embodiment of new concepts such as dignity, personalism, and rights.

A similar point applies to the study of legacies that the last chapter of this book provides: it is selective and illustrative but not comprehensive or even representative. Study of the full intersection of Christianity and human rights after 1945 remains to be undertaken, both in Protestant ecumenical activism and through the worldwide ramifications of later Pope John XXIII's pivotal encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963). Unlike John, Pius XII never referred to the Universal Declaration. But Pacem in Terris not only remedied this omission, in what became by far the most trendsetting Catholic endorsement of rights for a global audience; it also reopened the debate about whether commitment to human dignity ratified conservative democracy or pointed far beyond its terms. Without experimental forms of Christianity, further, Amnesty International—the founder of which, Peter Benenson, came out of the Catholic nongovernmental organization Pax Christi, just as many of its early members had close links to ecumenical Protestant networks—might never have been formed, and the shape of contemporary human rights advocacy could look very different. Across the ocean, in an early sign of evangelical Protestantism's conquest of mainline strongholds in the United States and its impending rise to political importance, Jimmy Carter, president of the country in the later 1970s, could give human rights policies unprecedented salience in American liberalism and testify that he did so on religious grounds.

Absorbing and even uplifting as these other stories are, they presuppose rather than negate the importance of the prior victory of Christian human rights as a conservative achievement on which this book focuses. Also left out in what follows—since I have devoted a prior book to the topic—is how, after a midcentury interlude, the secular left achieved predominant ownership over human rights. The same was not to be true in America, of course, where in spite of a significant community of secular defenders of human rights, many more legacies of their Christian incubation remained strong far longer. While evangelical Christianity briefly helped American liberals discover human rights, it soon proved a massive boost to conservative politics that defined the late twentieth century, and "religious freedom" is currently a privileged weapon of the conservative and religious right. The minimal goal of the last chapter of this book is to provide an indication of how, in Europe, elements of Christian human rights could survive the transwar age of their inception, in spite of the passing of Christian politics and even Christianity itself on its old continent. That this persistence could occur is lamentable, this book contends, precisely because postwar European history generally extricated human rights from their proprietary Christian and especially from their conservative rendition.

The reorientation of conservatives through the 1930s and 1940s—which was often at stake even when actors did not call themselves conservatives—matters because of its lasting effects. Before this period, "human rights" had always been identified with the French Revolution and its promise of secular emancipation. In the face of a Soviet enemy that claimed for itself the mantle of secularism and revolution, a Cold War liberalism arose that featured a tremendously fateful new opening to Christian (sometimes newly called "Judeo-Christian") values and interests, with prior decades of culture war forgotten. This consequential reshuffling haunts politics to this day, as the deepest aspirations of democracy changed, prizing moderation against extremes over liberation of human capacity, and restoring order to its time-honored status as the centerpiece of justice.

For anyone who wants to revive rather than criticize the promise of secular emancipation, for all its faults, the invention of Christian human rights thus provides a window into how the present took on some of its characteristic features—a present in which, after the suppression of the far right, a guarded centrism uniting liberals and conservatives frequently prevails, and core values asserted against putative irresponsibility matter more than bids for secular progress.

In the 1940s, as much as in and through some of its contemporary legacies, Christian human rights have been not so much about the inclusion of the other as about policing the borders and boundaries on which threatening enemies loom. And so the story of Christian human rights shows how our premier principles have a complex itinerary. Like all inheritances, it is worth tough criticism, rather than unreflective admiration.

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