Roundtable on “Christian Human Rights”

For readers who are interested, the H-Diplo Roundtable Review has published my essay 1716on Harvard Law Professor Samuel Moyn’s provocative recent monograph, Christian Human Rights (2015), as part of a roundtable discussion of the book. Along with Moyn, the other participants include Martin Conway (Balliol College Oxford) and David A. Hollinger (Berkeley).

Here’s snippet of my essay:

Similarly, Moyn’s reflections about whether contemporary human rights can improve upon Christianity as a moral movement, with which he ends the book, are misguided. Christianity offers human rights important lessons, he says. Institutionally, the religion has been a great success. But spiritually it has been a failure: it has not improved the souls of people who call themselves Christians. As a result of this failure, he says, Christianity has been forced to retreat into “opacity and mysticism” (180). Human rights must do better. It must, according to Moyn, actually change things in this world, or else it will be just another futile faith.

These remarks are rather dismissive of Christianity. More important, they reflect a fundamental misunderstanding – a category error. Christianity is not a moral movement in the way human rights is. It does not promise people a more perfect world; it offers them salvation. That has been the essence of its appeal across millennia and its appeal today – no longer in Europe, perhaps, but across the global South, where Christianity is experiencing explosive growth. Human rights, which is a political program, can never expect to have Christianity’s place in people’s lives. I am reminded of Talleyrand’s famous answer to an earnest revolutionary who asked him for advice on how to start a new, enlightened religion to replace Christianity: ‘I recommend that you be crucified and rise again on the third day.’

And Moyn’s response:

From a Christian perspective, Mark Movsesian goes very far in welcoming this project, and not at all selfservingly — since he is ready to agree that many Christians embraced human rights more recently than some would today like to believe. I would only comment that he may have misread my epilogue, which is not at all intended to be critical of Christianity as a faith, though I recognize that temptation as an outsider. Rather, my point was that the deepest Christians have always known that Christianity itself demands constant public reflection on its own failure — a practice in which even the best human rights activists may have learned to engage far too slowly. Further, it is out of respect for Christianity as ultimately a faith movement – a faith, as Movsesian points out, based on belief in Jesus Christ’s resurrection to begin with – that I distinguish human rights as a movement that has to be held to different standards. Unlike Christians, that is, these believers have to face failures and limitations without relying on the expectation that human rights work in mysterious ways. Yet these differences hardly imply that Christianity and human rights are entirely disanalogous either. Whatever else Christianity was and is, it is a moral vision, and – as both Barnett and Hollinger agree — the methods of its partisans in inculcating that vision seem to me profoundly relevant to any other moral agenda. Beyond whatever strictly historical contributions to rethinking the 1930 and 1940s birth of human rights it makes, my book, I hope, reminds secular progressives that Christianity remains the social movement to beat.

You can read the entire roundtable here.

Rasmussen, “Mormonism and the Making of a British Zion”

In May, the University of Utah Press will release “Mormonism and the Making of a British Zion” by Matthew Lyman Rasmussen (University of Lancaster). The publisher’s description follows:

Mormonism in Britain began in the late 1830s with the arrival of American missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Not long afterward, thousands of British converts emigrated to Utah and became a kind of lifeblood for the early Mormon Church. England’s North West, where Mormonism had its strongest presence, has become a place of profound significance to the church, yet its early importance to Mormonism has never been fully explored. Matthew Rasmussen’s detailed account examines how Mormonism has changed and endured in Britain.

After many British believers left for America, church membership in England fell so sharply that the movement in Britain seemed to be on the brink of collapse. Yet British Mormonism gradually rebuilt and continues today. How did this religious minority flourish when so many nineteenth-century revivalist movements did not? Rasmussen explains Mormonism’s inception, perpetuation, and maturation in Britain in a compelling case study of a “new religious movement” with staying power.

Stewart, “Chinese Muslims and the Global Ummah”

In June, Routledge will release “Chinese Muslims and the Global Ummah: Islamic Revival and Ethnic Identity Among the Hui of Qinghai Province” by Alexander Stewart (University of California, San Diego). The publisher’s description follows:

The global spread of Islamic movements and the ascendance of a Chinese state that limits religious freedom have aroused anxieties about integrating Islam and protecting religious freedom around the world. Focusing on violent movements like the so-called Islamic State and Uygur separatists in China’s Xinjiang Province threatens to drown out the alternatives presented by apolitical and inwardly focused manifestations of transnational Islamic revival popular among groups like the Hui, China’s largest Muslim minority.

This book explores how Muslim revivalists in China’s Qinghai Province employ individual agency to reconcile transnational notions of religious orthodoxy with the materialist rationalism of atheist China. Based on a year immersed in one of China’s most concentrated and conservative urban Muslim communities in Xining, the book puts individuals’ struggles to navigate theological controversies in the contexts of global Islamic revival and Chinese modernization. By doing so, it reveals how attempts to revive the original essence of Islam can empower individuals to form peaceful and productive articulations with secular societies, and further suggests means of combatting radicalization and encouraging interfaith dialogue.

As the first major research monograph on Islamic revival in modern China, this book will be of interest to students and scholars of Anthropology, Islamic Studies, and Chinese Studies.