13 October 2015

The Post-Christian Human Rights Regime

I came across a review by John McGreevy in Commonweal here of a just-published book by Samuel Moyn titled "Christian Human Rights." I'm hardly a Commonweal regular but the title of the book caught my interest. According to McGreevy's review, historical/traditional Christianity, whether of Roman Catholic or Protestant lineage, had virtually nothing to do with the contemporary human rights movement. Instead,
During the chaotic 1930s and ’40s, as democracies collapsed and Nazi armies crisscrossed Europe, Christian thinkers, Moyn argues, led by the French Catholic scholar Jacques Maritain, performed an act of rhetorical bravado. Simultaneously they persuaded moderate Christians to commandeer a language of rights and democracy once almost wholly associated with the secular left while cajoling policy-makers and intellectuals into accepting that postwar societies in Western Europe and North America needed a deeper religious grounding.
In other words, previous centuries of Christian commitment to authoritarian governments themselves committed to an established religion were undermined at the drop of a hat in the face of Nazism (and later Communism).

While I am more than dubious about this historical construction (see my article Looking for Bedrock: Accounting for Human Rights in Classical Liberalism, Modern Secularism, and the Christian Tradition, which you can download here), I found McGreevy's concluding observations of interest. On the one hand,
Moyn concedes that the modern human-rights movement is now untethered from its Christian origins. Christianity has never had so little influence in Europe; human-rights activists never so much.
But on the other, "One senses Moyn agreeing with the claim made by philosopher Charles Taylor, that, absent some transcendental horizon, human-rights fervor will be difficult to sustain." (For more about Charles Taylor go to my posts here, here, here, and here.)

Just so. A purely immanent frame of reference, one without a robust anthropology and a well-formed eschatology, will eventually run out of steam. Even the current idée fixe of human rights will end in the trash bin of history unless it can be re-tethered to something more substantial.

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