In January 2013, hundreds of thousands of French Catholics marched down the streets of Paris to protest “Marriage for All,” a bill introduced by the government a few months earlier to open marriage and adoption to same-sex couples. That Catholics would object to gay marriage was not particularly surprising, but the arguments and symbols that they put forth were more puzzling. Many of the marches were led by a group of young women dressed as revolutionary Mariannes with Phrygian caps and red-white-and-blue streamers. According to the Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the bill revealed that civil law no longer “defended our vision of man,” one anchored in “the understanding of human dignity that derives from Greek wisdom, Judeo-Christian revelation, and the Enlightenment.” One of the leaders of the protests, Tugdual Derville, called for a movement of “human ecology” grounded in human dignity and universalism that would resist the “perversion of human rights” by an “egalitarian ideology founded on the fantasy of autonomy,” as exemplified in the demand for a right to marriage. Others, such as the philosopher Thibaud Collin, urged a return to anthropology, natural law, and a philosophy of the person to combat the démocratisme, the excessive democratic animus, driving the pro-marriage activists.

For a historian of French history, there is undoubtedly a certain irony to see Catholic activists struggling against the proponents of marriage equality to reclaim republicanism, universalism, dignity, and human rights—notions that, after all, many were fighting a century ago. From Pope Pius VI’s condemnation of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man as “detestable,” to Pius IX’s unflinching refusal of liberalism in the “Syllabus of Errors” in 1864, it was not until the late nineteenth century that Catholics came to accept liberal values, and in the French case, to “rally” themselves to the Republic, following Pope Leo XIII’s call in 1892. But how did the Church evolve from mere acceptance of human rights to the actual ownership of its discourse and main concepts such as man, dignity, and the Enlightenment?

Samuel Moyn’s forthcoming book, Christian Human Rights, offers an answer to this question by tracing the genealogy through which Catholicism and Protestantism came to embrace human rights. To be sure, many scholars have emphasized the Christian origins of rights, whether they locate this birth in the Bible, the figure of Jesus, the Reformation, or the Enlightenment. But most of these longue durée histories tend to naturalize the relationship between human rights and Christianity. Thus, they fail to account for Catholicism’s overt hostility towards secularism and liberalism throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Moyn’s point is that there is nothing self-evident about the Christian celebration of human rights from a theoretical or historical perspective. Rather, this confluence is the product of a particular context: the 1940s. It was the result of specific political decisions by various Christian intellectuals and activists who decided to adopt human rights in their struggle against capitalism and communism. In their Cold War polarized world, Christianity offered an alternative social and political model, one that would avoid these extremes by providing freedom and coercion, each in the right amount. According to Moyn, these figures were ultimately responsible for engraving human rights at the heart of Western liberal democracy.

Moyn’s call to rethink the chronology of human rights is not an attempt to refute all previous histories of human rights nor a search for a purer or truer origin. In this sense, it seems to me that those critics who have accused Moyn of arguing (especially in his previous book, The Last Utopia) that human rights emerged ex nihilo in the postwar period are missing the point. As I see it, Moyn’s work presents a fundamental challenge to two visions of human rights that still dominate much of the public discourse. The first claims that rights emerged because of some natural or innate human feature (pity, empathy, or compassion, for example) that would predispose us to care for others. The second contends that human rights are inherently progressive. Whereas The Last Utopia already shook the first triumphalist thesis at its core, Christian Human Rights tackles this second common stance. Human rights were not the project of a secular left committed to liberalism, democracy, and pluralism, but rather, the implementation of a specifically Christian and a specifically conservative understanding of the individual, the social, and the relationship between the two. I would add that from a methodological standpoint, Moyn’s work makes another important contribution: it exemplifies the best kind of intellectual history, one committed to the systematic critique of concepts that have progressively erased their political origins. Alternating careful close readings of philosophical texts and contextual information, Moyn also makes an argument for the importance of theory in history and of history in law, politics, and philosophy—fields that too often treat human rights as abstract, transcendental, or a priori.

Historians have already highlighted the importance of the 1940s for the consolidation of human rights, but according to Moyn, they have focused on the wrong factors. Namely, they have cited the birth of the United Nations and the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights; the “post-Holocaust breakthrough” and the coming-to-terms with plight of the Jewish people; the “multicultural spirit” animating Western Europe after the war; and the belief that human rights would provide the necessary and definitive break with the fascist horror that Europe had just experienced. By encouraging us to consider “transwar continuities,” Moyn makes clear that the kind of human rights that liberal democracies celebrated after the war were in fact theorized during the 1930s by Catholic thinkers. The war, the continuing threat of totalitarianism, and the desire to promote a moral reconstruction of Europe provided the context in which such a discourse could flourish.

Among these Catholic thinkers, Moyn pauses on the life and work of the French philosopher, Jacques Maritain, a figure often associated with personalism. Despite its various historical and geographic versions, personalism was, as its name indicates, a philosophy committed to the defense of the human person. In France, during the interwar years, it was theorized most famously perhaps by Emmanuel Mounier, the founder and editor of the journal Esprit. Mounier and Maritain both conceived of personalism as an alternative to liberalism and socialism. By emphasizing the importance of individual self-realization, personalism softened the homogeneity and constraint of collectivism. By promoting community and social unity, it promised to overcome the anomie, the competitiveness, and the atomism of Anglo-Saxon liberalism and capitalism. Personalism, in other words, never promoted individual rights in the abstract. Rather it anchored them in a particular community. It was these definitions of the person and of rights that eventually made their way to the Vatican (where Maritain served as ambassador)—especially after Pope Pius XI explicitly committed the Church to anti-totalitarianism during the 1930s with his encyclicals condemning both Nazism and communism—to finally reach international organizations such as the UNESCO and the UN.

In conclusion, I would like to bring up three broader issues or questions that Moyn’s captivating study left me with. First, I wonder about the relationship between Catholicism and Protestantism; though eventually the two concur on the celebration of human rights, what are the actual values that they shared or did not share? How were Protestants, for instance, able to accept the holistic vision of the social that personalism and Catholicism advocated during the 1930s and 1940s? How did they reconcile their focus on individual faith with the primacy of the community?

My second point has to do with the difficulty of locating the personalist vision of human rights on a left/right scale. Moyn persuasively reinscribes Mounier’s philosophy within the movement of “non-conformism,” of “neither left nor right, ” to use Zeev Stenhell’s helpful formulation, which was prevalent in France during the interwar years. Yet, by the time this Christian understanding of rights eventually triumphed in the postwar period, Moyn refers to it as fundamentally conservative and on the right. While it seems clear to me that this theory was explicitly anti-liberal (and anti-communist), it is less clear that Christian human rights were committed to a right-wing agenda given the importance they accorded to the social. The fact that dignity first appeared in relation to labor rights and family policy would, for instance, suggest that this movement could have leaned towards the left. Then again, perhaps the key to the success of the Christian human rights movement was the ability to mask its political allegiances by claiming to first and foremost defend neutral and pre-political notions such as humanity. Despite the fact that, as Moyn tells us, Maritain accused those Catholics who had supported the Vichy regime of favoring “old paternalistic conceptions of history,” I am still not sure why Maritain would not have welcomed Vichy’s corporatist reformulation of social policy and law, or why he would ultimately embrace the United States.

My final question concerns the articulation of secularism and religion in Moyn’s argument. “Universalistic and formalistic languages always have a historically specific and ideologically particular meaning,” Moyn writes. By mapping this Christian genealogy of human rights, Moyn appears to join various scholars of religion, shaped by postcolonial criticism, who argue that modernity and secularism were, in fact, always Christian. For Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, or Mayanthi Fernando (among others), secularism has functioned as a privileged instrument of governmentality in the modern world. Yet, Moyn claims to be weary of a “totalizing critique that leaves no room for alternative secularisms—precisely, in [his] view, what is most needed today.” Should we think of the relationship between the universalism of human rights and the particularism of Christianity as historical (might alternative secularism possibly exist?) or as structural (as the scholars above have argued)? At several points in his study, Moyn refers to the “collapse of European Christianity after the 1960s.” But if we accept this structuralist understanding of secularism, then perhaps Christianity is still alive and vibrant in Europe, no longer as faith but as law. As the example of gay marriage that I began with suggests, it is, after all, in the domain of the law that the notions of dignity, anthropology, natural law, and the person have come to circulate, not as synonyms but as antonyms of human rights, as tools to actually oppose democracy. Bringing to light these dynamics certainly complicates the self-proclaimed secularism of much of European law—and certainly the idea of a neutral public sphere in the French version of laïcité. In either case, Moyn’s new book provides us with essential material to think through these questions and to engage in this normatively difficult conversation about where secularism begins and religion ends.