The Long History of Human Rights: Review of Samuel Moyn, Christian Human Rights

Books and Culture 22(2) (March/April, 2016): 22-24

9 Pages Posted: 9 Mar 2020

Date Written: 2016


This Essay assesses Samuel Moyn’s revisionist argument that human rights were born only in the mid-twentieth century and then mostly as a shrewd Christian response to the secular liberalism and communist materialism that endangered the Church’s political interests and influence. This account largely ignores the West’s enduring and evolving tradition of rights, which have been an integral part of its commitment to the rule of law and constitutional order. Jurists since classical Roman and medieval times used rights language to define the law’s protection, support, limitations, and entitlements of various persons and groups in society, and to map the proper interactions between political and other authorities and their respective subjects. Early modern Catholics, Protestants, and Enlightenment liberals built on this tradition, setting out most of the rights that the twentieth century declared to be universal rights of humankind. Moyn exaggerates the conservative Catholic influences on the mid-twentieth-century international human rights movement, and fails to credit the wide range of religious and philosophical views that were equally influential. And he exaggerates the secular character of contemporary human rights discussions, and fails to recognize the essential role of religion and belief in making rights real.

Keywords: Samuel Moyn, human rights, Christianity, Catholicism, Protestantism, Calvinism, Enlightenment, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, secularism, rights skepticism, religious freedom, Edict of Milan, Magna Carta, canon law, Act of Abjuration, ius libertas, Holocaust

Suggested Citation

Witte, John, The Long History of Human Rights: Review of Samuel Moyn, Christian Human Rights (2016). Books and Culture 22(2) (March/April, 2016): 22-24, Available at SSRN:

John Witte (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

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