Moyn, Christian Human Rights

I want to call special notice to Professor Samuel Moyn’s very interesting and Moyn, Christian Human Rightselegantly executed new book, Christian Human Rights (2015), which traces the specifically 20th century Christian roots of contemporary (secular?) human rights. Moyn begins really in 1937 and devotes special attention to Pope Pius XII’s 1942 Christmas message, “The Internal Order of States and People,” in which Pius announced both the “dignity of the human person” and that man “should uphold respect for and the practical realization of…fundamental personal rights.”

I’ve just started to dig in to the book, but I wanted to highlight a few passages from the introduction to illustrate some of the accents and grace notes of the book. There is, for example, this line: “The trouble, after all, is not so much that Christianity accounts for nothing, as that it accounts for everything.” (6) Part of Moyn’s project is remedial with respect both to those “secular historians” who have “nervously bypassed” “the Christian incarnation of human rights, which interferes with their preferred understandings of today’s highest principles” and those other scholars, “overwhelmingly Christians themselves,” who go about defending the Christian tradition of human rights “in a highly abstract way” and by recourse to “long ago events” stretching to the very beginnings of Christianity.

There is also this, on the idea of tradition (admittedly, a subject of some interest to me):

No one could plausibly claim–and no one ever has–that the history of human rights is one of wholly discontinuous novelty….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. (5)

The citation is to Hobsbawm’s essay (in his collected volume) on The Invention of Tradition (in which Hugh Trevor Roper’s typically and enjoyably acid essay on Scottish tartans is one of my very favorites in the ‘tradition-as-fraud’ genre). Yet I hope it is not too tart of me to wonder whether this might just as easily be called “the invention of novelty,” novelties being, of course, the stuff on which scholars make their living. Perhaps a little of both?

More seriously, perhaps what these lines in Moyn’s fine and insightful book really suggest is that what is really most needful is a true and clear-eyed account of the idea of tradition and its importance for law and legal institutions generally, one that is neither committed to its lionization nor demonization.

2 responses

  1. “[T]he specifically 20th century Christian roots of contemporary (secular?) human rights”? Maybe – but the earlier record of the Churches does not bear examination. If Professor Moyn starts in 1937 then that’s probably a very safe place to start from.

    The late, great Tom Bingham (formerly our Lord Chief Justice and then Senior Law Lord) argued cogently that far from being a product of religious sensibility, human rights were essentially secular in nature and that, in particular, freedom of thought, conscience and religion as guaranteed by Article 9 ECHR and Article 18 UDHR were “… a right which, historically, established religions have found it very hard to accommodate and in some places still do”: see Lord Bingham of Cornhill, ‘Endowed by their Creator?’ (2005) 37 Ecclesiastical Law Journal 173, 181.

    I still think Tom Bingham was right.

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