When it set to work in New York in 1947, the nine-person committee selected to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights included individuals from very different cultural, philosophical, and religious backgrounds, including Chinese, Middle Eastern, Hindu, Latin American, Islamic, Jewish, Christian, and Marxian traditions. This fact, along with the committee’s decision to exclude any references to God or religion from the document’s preamble, has led some scholars to claim that the concept of human rights was framed in strictly secular terms in the immediate postwar era.
It is increasingly clear, however, that religion—and, more particularly, Christianity—played a central role in the genesis and early promotion of the Declaration as a statement of putatively universal values. More significantly, between 1939 and 1947, Protestant theologians and church leaders—working through the World Council of Churches, the Commission for a Just and Durable Peace, the Federal Council of Churches, and other bodies, in close ecumenical partnership with the American Jewish Committee and the bishops of the Catholic Church—campaigned vigorously for the creation of the United Nations and “a new world order” dedicated to human rights. “In fact,” theologian Max Stackhouse writes, “the more this history is dug out, the clearer it becomes that [religious thinkers and leaders] supplied much of the intellectual and ethical substance that formed these so-called ‘secular’ documents.”
In his latest book, Christian Human Rights, Harvard historian Samuel Moyn—building on The Last Utopia (2010) and a group of essays collected in Human Rights and the Uses of History (2014)—seeks to excavate the importance of Christian social and political thought to the rise of human rights as a compelling moral concern in the twentieth century. Unlike Stackhouse, Moyn presents this story not in a celebratory but, rather, a deeply skeptical key. He aims to uncover the origins of “our premier principles” by taking an approach of “tough criticism rather than unreflective admiration.” The result is a work of critical scholarship that is by turns illuminating, puzzling, contentious, and flawed.