H-Diplo Review Essay 349- "Christianity and Human Rights Reconsidered"

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H-Diplo Review Essay 349

11 June 2021

Sarah Shortall and Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, eds.  Christianity and Human Rights Reconsidered.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2020.  ISBN:  9781108424707 (hardback, $99.99).

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Sarah Snyder | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Katharina Kunter, University of Helsinki

The history of human rights in the twentieth century has seen a boom in research over the past 10 years.  The stimulating publications and contributions by the historian Samuel Moyn, especially his 2010 book, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History[1], contributed to this.  In 2015 he took up again the question of the relationship between Christianity and human rights in his book Christian Human Rights[2].  He pointed out that human rights first emerged in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s as a primarily conservative Christian project.  This argument has taken up and developed by other historians such as Marco Duranti[3] into the idea of a “conservative human rights revolution,” which after the Second World War would have contributed to the emergence of a conservative Cold War world order. These interpretations, however, experienced different clarifications as well as contradiction.

Christianity and Human Rights Reconsidered, edited by Sarah Shortall and Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, also belongs to this context.  Moyn wrote the preface, and his studies form the starting point for the volume’s 14 articles.  The authors include younger historians, theologians, Christian social ethicists, and political theorists; nevertheless the historical perspective is dominant. Geographically, the contributions explore the relationship between Christianity and human rights, not just in Europe and the U.S., but also in Africa, Latin America, and China.  All of the easily readable and fluently written articles show that there is now not only a dynamic “new” historiography of human rights, but also a vibrant new scholarship on the twentieth-century history of Christianity which takes seriously the ideas and aims of Christians themselves, as Shortall and Steinmetz-Jenkins write in their introduction.[4] It is to the great merit of this volume that it diversifies and deepens some of Moyn's at times vague, sweeping, and even polemical judgments with regard to the relationship between Christianity and human rights. The volume tells two narratives, which clash again and again: one sees human rights as having developed from the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the other understands human rights as a product and a result of the enlightenment against the Christian religion.

These two conflicting interpretations are clear in part I of the volume, entitled “General Reflections.” John Milbank and Julian Bourg deal with Moyn's “Christian Human Rights” as well as with the Moyn critic and legal philosopher John Finnis and the complex relationship between Catholicism and the Enlightenment, liberalism and modernity (or anti-modernism) since the French Revolution.[5] Both contributions, written from a broad historical and discursive perspective, are deepened in part II through carefully researched and stimulating individual case studies on European Catholicism and Human Rights. James Chappel examines why European Catholics turned to human rights in the 1930s.[6] He considers the fact that human rights functioned as a kind of “tool box” in the 1930s to the essential reason, arguing that they helped Catholic thinkers to accept the reality of the secular nation-state and at the same time to implement the Catholic principles in it. Carlo Invernizzi Accetti approaches human rights via the Catholic Social Doctrine and his article includes the present of Pope Francis I.[7] The skepticism of Catholicism towards the liberal conception of individual autonomy then remains, but the ongoing struggle involving the meaning of human rights became more prominent.  Udi Greenberg goes back to the nineteenth century in his stimulating article on the “Radical Orthodoxy and the Rebirth of Christian Opposition to Human Rights.”[8] He describes, among other aspects, how the long-standing perception that religious freedom was a subjective, “Protestant,” notion changed in in the twentieth-century and led finally to new alliances between conservative Protestants and Catholics. While Greenberg concentrates on the Anglo-American school of “radical orthodoxy,” Camille Robcis examines how the concept of “dignity” was built up as a counter-concept to individual rights using the example of the current political discussion in the field of biopolitics in France.[9]

Part III of the volume contains three contributions on American Protestant Trajectories.  Gene Zubovich works out to what extent the philosopher William Ernest Hocking offered a popular and influential alternative to the political theology of mid-century Christian Protestant realists by placing the emphasis on human rights in their roots on the Enlightenment.[10] P. MacKenzie Bok’s essay is dedicated to another famous contemporary thinker with Protestant roots, the philosopher John Rawls and his "Stirrings of Personalism at Wartime Princeton."[11] Bok's comparison between Rawls and the Swiss theologian Emil Brunner, who makes Rawls appear as a “last Christian personalist” or even “post-Protestant liberal,” is particularly revealing. The final “Protestant” contribution in this part leaves the history of intellectuals.  Using the example of the actor, activist, and worker´s right advocate Paul Robeson, who belonged to the Mother African Methodist Episcopal Church, Vincent Lloyd examines to what extent the concept of “dignity” was not only a central vernacular idiom for Robeson, but also in how far this concept made it possible for him to conduct his political struggle in secular language.[12]

Part IV of the volume expands the geographic focus that had prevailed until then to Europe and North America to a global perspective and looks at the relationship between Christianity and human rights in China, Africa, and Latin America against the background of poverty, decolonization, and the need to build an indigenous church.  Albert Wu focuses on the 1920s and 1930s, and shows how narrow the leeway of the Vatican and the Catholic Church was towards the Communist Party in the face of its ideological rejection of individual human rights.[13] In comparison with China, the situation for the Catholic Church in Africa was different, especially in the context of the Second Vatican Council. Elizabeth Forster demonstrates how the Senegalese Catholic writer and intellectual Alioune Diop made a convincing contribution to the decolonization movement and to the redefinition of Catholicism as a truly universalistic guardian of indigenous cultures and an advocate for the poor.[14]

David M. Lantigua goes a step further into the twentieth century with his article on “Neoliberalism, Human Rights, and the Theology of Liberation in Latin America.”[15] He examines the period after the 1970s and the two global triumphs of that period, the parallel rising of human rights and neoliberalism.  Against the background of the military dictatorships in Latin America, he argues, human rights became a product of neoliberalism.  The Catholic Church, which was often oppressed and driven into martyrdom, responded with liberation theology that was forged to offer an option for the poor.  At the end of Part IV, Christopher Tounsel broadens the male perspective of the contributions and explores "Two Sudans, Human Rights and the Afterlives of St. Josephine Bakhita," who became Sudan's first Catholic Saint during the Sudanese Civil War from 1983 to 2005.[16]

Altogether the contributions in the volume are of high academic quality and open up new and fresh perspectives on the complex history of the relationship between Christianity and human rights in the twentieth century. The history of ideas dominates.  The frequent references to Moyn’s work are somewhat overdone and not required by the topic matter.  It should also be noted that the volume largely subsumes the Catholic perspective under “Christianity.” The fact that Protestant ethics and theology in the twentieth century was much less closed and philosophical than in Catholicism is not addressed in the essays.  The three contributions on Protestantism deal with people who were not representative of American and European Protestantism and who did not reveal any theological or historical “Protestant” constants or overarching concepts of human rights.  In this context it is worth remembering that one of the sharpest critics of Jacques Maritain's personalism in the 1940s was the later general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Dutch Protestant Willem Visser 't Hooft.  Finally, the rich and diverse Orthodox Christianity is not discussed in the volume.

These objections aside, Shortall and Steinmetz-Jenkins have published a recommendable and very readable volume that will certainly advance further research in the recent history of Christianity and in the historiography of human rights.


Katharina Kunter is Professor Contemporary Church History in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Helsinki.  In her publications and in her research, she examines the political role of European Christianity after 1945, in particular the contributions of the churches to the Helsinki Process from 1968 to 1978 or the emergence and development of oppositional Christian groups in communist Central and Eastern Europe and their involvement in the political transformations after 1989.


[1] Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia, Human Rights in History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[2] Samuel Moyn, Christian Human Rights.  Intellectual History of the Modern Age (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

[3] Marco Duranti, The Conservative Human Rights Revolution: European Identity, Transnational Politics, and the Origins of the European Convention (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).                      

[4] Sarah Shortall and Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, “Introduction,” in Shortall and Steinmetz-Jenkins, eds., Christianity and Human Rights Reconsidered (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020): 1-16.

[5] John Milbank, “The Last Christian Settlement: A Defense and Critique, in Debate with Samuel Moyn,” 19-39; Julian Bourg, “The Alpine Climb between Paris and Rome,” 40-60.

[6] James Chappel, “Explaining the Catholic Turn to Rights in the 1930s,” 63-80.

[7] Carlo Invernizzi Accetti, “Catholic Social Doctrine and Human Rights: From Rejection to Endorsement?” 81-102.

[8] Udi Greenberg, “Radical Orthodoxy and the Rebirth of Christian Opposition to Human Rights,” 103-118.

[9] Camille Robcis, “The Biopolitics of Dignity,” 119-136.

[10] Gene Zubovich, “William Ernest Hocking and the Liberal Protestant Origins of Human Rights,” 139-157.

[11] P. MacKenzie Bok, “Inside the Cauldron: Rawls and the Stirrings of Personalism at Wartime Princeton,” 158-188.

[12] Vincent Lloyd, “The Dignity of Paul Robeson,” 189-204.

[13] Albert Wu, “On Chinese Rites and Rights,” 207–222.

[14] Elizabeth Foster, “‘Expert in Humanity’: An African Vision for the Catholic Church,” 223–237.

[15] David M. Lantigua, “Neoliberalism, Human Rights, and the Theology of Liberation in Latin America,” 238–260.

[16] Christopher Tounsel, “Two Sudans, Human Rights, and the Afterlives of St. Josephine Bakhita,” 261–275.