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.

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