Samuel Moyn, a professor of law and history at Harvard University, makes a provocative claim: Human rights, the foundational principle of global, secular progressivism, originated as the project of Christian conservatives in the mid-twentieth century. During and immediately after World War II, these Christians—Moyn is concerned principally with European Catholics, but he also discusses American Protestants—appropriated the Enlightenment’s concept of human rights and transformed it into its opposite.
The Enlightenment had advanced the rights of man. The modern state was commissioned to secure these rights and break the power of a reactionary Church. In the postwar period, however, Christian thinkers and politicians such as Pope Pius XII, Jacques Maritain, Charles Malik, Robert Schuman, John Foster Dulles, and others captured the language of human rights, particularly the concept of human dignity. The post-Christian totalitarianisms of the twentieth century gained control of powerful nation states, trampling individual liberties and suffocating civil society. For Christian Democratic movements in Europe, human rights became the favored instrument for criticizing these ideologies and limiting the power of the modern secular state. It was a remarkable act of intellectual jujitsu.