What is the place of the United States in the history of Christian human rights? This question is worth entertaining because there are many parallels between developments in postwar Europe and postwar America. During the 1940s and 1950s, when Christian Democrats took control of European governments, the American Congress adopted a religious motto (“In God We Trust”), inscribed God onto money and into the pledge of allegiance, and debated a constitutional amendment that would acknowledge Jesus Christ as the guarantor of American liberty.

Sam Moyn’s great contribution to the history of human rights is his careful attention to the meaning human rights assumed in particular contexts. The “human rights” of the 1780s were not the human rights of the 1940s or 1970s. His new work focuses on the WWII era, when primarily European conservative Christians (mostly Catholics) invented the idea of human rights in opposition to fascism and communism—but also to liberalism. The anti-liberal roots of human rights “should deeply unsettle prevailing opinion about what the concept of human rights implied in its founding era,” Moyn writes. It is the corporatist and deeply conservative roots of “personalism” that inspired Catholic support for human rights. Personalism was part of a reinvented conservatism designed to Christianize politics after WWII.

To many Americans in the 1940s personalism was associated with figures like the Methodist Bishop Francis J. McConnell, not Jacques Maritain or Pope Pius XII. McConnell was an important figure of the American left, who carried on the social gospel tradition of seeing individuals as “persons-in-community.” McConnell absorbed personalism during his doctoral training at Boston University under philosopher Borden Parker Bowne. Bowne had impeccable liberal credentials: he was an early supporter of women’s suffrage and went so far to reconcile his religious beliefs with Enlightenment values that he has the distinction of being one of the few Methodists ever tried for heresy (he was unanimously acquitted). By the 1940s personalism was “virtually the ‘party line’ of American Methodism,” according to one historian, and its understanding of man was widespread among Protestant intellectuals.

The American ecumenical Protestant embrace of human rights in the 1940s was rooted in theologically liberal doctrines like personalism. Their rhetoric and their actions demonstrated that ecumenical Protestants were eager to adopt values that were widely understood to be secular in the 1940s. Ecumenical Protestants were critical to the accommodation and promotion of secular values in predominantly Christian America.

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With a few exceptions, historical scholarship on the United States has established that ecumenical Protestants were liberal in most of the ways that mattered in the American context. In the 1940s they supported the growing welfare state, backed church-state separation, protested against racism, backed liberalized sexual practices, and opposed censorship. Fundamentalists, evangelicals, and some Catholic leaders were among their most vocal opponents on these issues.

But is it possible that while they were understood to be liberal in the American context, internationally they were part of a “Christian right” whose members were “reformulating their conservatism,” as Moyn suggests? I don’t think so. Placing the most prominent American Protestants of the WWII-era in a global context shows us how distinct they were from European Catholics in their relationship to “secularism.” Ecumenical Protestants went to great lengths to make compromises with secular values.

Secularism is a contested concept that is best understood through context-specific inquiry. In 1948, the year that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, three debates were most salient in the American context about the boundaries between the religious and the secular. The first was on the doctrine of church-state separation (the Everson case in 1947 and the McCollum case in 1948 established a “wall of separation” between “church and state”). The second debate was the stir caused by the publication of a series of articles in The Nation by Paul Blanshard in 1947 and 1948 that criticized the Catholic Church’s position on birth control, reproduction, end of life care, and censorship. Lastly, the boundary between religion and secularity was debated in reference to the specter of communism in Europe and East Asia.

In all three cases, ecumenical Protestants diverged from European (and American) Catholicism. Take anticommunism as an example. During the 1930s and especially after WWII, American and European Catholic leaders devoted a tremendous amount of effort toward opposing communism. What stood out most about the leaders of America’s Federal Council of Churches (FCC), and other Protestant organizations that Moyn references, was their efforts to reconcile themselves with communism in 1948. Reinhold Niebuhr and a few realist fellow-travelers were the exception, and the Christian Century recognized that their “discussion of justice and human rights consistently dealt with these in terms of expediency, as a means to curb Russia rather than to express Christian brotherhood.”1

Closer to the center of ecumenical Protestantism was Yale historian Kenneth Scott Latourette, who acted as the liaison on behalf of the FCC to the State Department (and was president of the American Historical Association in 1948). With Mao Zedong’s communists nearly completing their consolidation of mainland China in 1948, Latourette encouraged Christians to accept the inevitable persecution of their missionaries and the U.S. to continue giving economic aid to help develop the Chinese economy no matter who was in charge.2 It was part of the tragic but inevitable process of decolonization and the diminution of white supremacy.

The FCC adopted this soft view of communism as their official position the following year, insisting that “the primary resources with which the West must promote peace in the Pacific are ideas, not atomic bombs; food, not guns; plowshares, not swords; tools of production, not implements of destruction.”3

The development-oriented attitude toward East Asia, which mixed the universalism of Western modernity with anticolonial sentiment, was not a recent invention. The interest of ecumenical Protestants in East Asia was longstanding and rivaled their concern for the fate of Europe. In 1932 the Harvard Philosopher William Ernest Hocking wrote a controversial and widely read report that castigated the American missionary project in China and Japan. Missionaries were too focused on clumsy attempts to convert locals to Christianity, he argued, to the neglect of developmental projects, like building hospitals and schools. He also chided missionaries for their cultural imperialism. Hoping to create a “world unity in civilization,” Hocking insisted that:

The world must eventually become a moral unity: to this end, it was necessary that the apparent localism of Christianity should be broken down. It must not be thought of as solely the religion of the West. It was because Christianity is not western, but universally human, that it must be brought back to the Orient and made at home there.

Unresolved in Hocking’s thought was a tension between cultural pluralism (we are all different but equal) and universalism (we are all the same and equal). Was “the apparent localism of Christianity” to “be broken down” or was Christianity to be “made at home” in the Orient? Hocking was not sure. But he was certain that Protestantism needed to change in order to accommodate global religious and racial diversity.

The confidence in Christianity’s universal applicability through the right kind of moral language and the respect for cultural differences among nations was still unresolved in mid-century Protestant thought. It led them to support both human rights and anti-imperialism without recognizing any ideological tension between the two.

In 1942, Hocking had a hand in drafting a thirteen-point program on international affairs. “Government which derives its just powers from the consent of the governed is the truest expression of the rights and dignity of man,” the statement declared.4 “This requires that we seek autonomy for all subject and colonial peoples.” A year later, Hocking sat side by side with John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and John Foster Dulles as they announced the start of what became the most ambitious wartime mobilization on behalf of liberal internationalism. From the beginning the American Protestant search for “the rights and dignity of man” was interwoven with the effort of Hocking and others to reconcile Christian universalism with racial and cultural diversity around the world.

When Yale historian Latourette was writing about China in 1948, he drew upon this anticolonial tradition. He also saw the potential for communism to bring modernity to Asia. And like so many in his intellectual cohort, Latourette wanted Christianity to adopt certain aspects of communism. Christianity could also bring science, self-discipline, and other features of modernity to the East without the drawbacks of communism.

Methodist missionary expert Edmund Soper also drew parallels between Christianity and communism in his 1947 book, which was among the first global explorations of racism. Soper, who worked in the personalist tradition, celebrated the USSR’s policy of “local and racial autonomy,” and the Soviet Union’s drive to develop and retain the “distinctiveness, language, traditions, and customs” of ethnic minorities. The law was crucial to the promotion of pluralism: we are “beginning to realize that the racial problem is not a problem by itself but one which is a part of another, that of basic human rights.” And antiracist human rights were being realized in the USSR. Stalin may appear to be “virtually a dictator,” Soper wrote, but at the bottom of society “there is real democracy.” In the U.S., there were few other groups that expressed such communism-envy in the late 1940s.

When the FCC officially endorsed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the end of 1948, the move was unsurprising given Protestantism’s involvement with the drafting of the declaration. Yet press coverage said nothing about communism. Instead, front-page headlines showed that the FCC’s version of human rights was widely understood to be in the tradition of anti-imperialism and antiracism. “End of Racial Segregation Asked by Churches’ Council,” declared the New York Times. “Protestant Council Indorses Complete End of Segregation,” the Washington Post wrote. Or, as the Los Angeles Times put it, “Church Council Fully Approves Nonsegregation.”5

For most ecumenical Protestants, human rights in the 1940s were anticommunist to the extent that fighting communism required reform of domestic and international politics to more fully express liberal values. Moyn is surely right to note some of the parallels between continental religious conservatism and America’s Protestant majority. They share a Christian chauvinism, a desire to sacralize the state, to embed individuals within moral law, and to oppose communism.

Yet for all the anticommunist and anti-secular talk among ecumenical Protestants, they were persistent in their efforts to create a dialogue and accommodation with secularism’s defenders—including Mao’s China and Stalin’s USSR. So too with the United Nations and the human rights charter: their initial advocacy of Christian exceptionalism gave way to an embrace of universalist and secular language. While American evangelicals opposed the U.N. for making no mention of a Christian God, ecumenical Protestants saw it as a necessary compromise with a diverse world.

To argue that Christian human rights were anti-secular because they expressed anticommunism is a fair starting point. But a more precise measurement of the distance between religious groups and secularism’s defenders is needed. That distance in 1948 was far greater for Italian Catholics than for American ecumenical Protestants. Even the most dogmatic ecumenical Protestants, as Healan Gaston shows, were ambivalent about secularism, not anti-secular.

Catholics and ecumenical Protestants both claimed the cultural capital of Christianity. But speaking of a singular “Christian Human Rights” in the 1940s obscures both the national context in which American ecumenical Protestants worked and diminishes their contributions to the global debates on racism, colonialism, religious diversity, and communism. Ecumenical Protestants appropriated and promoted what were commonly assumed to be secular values. They did so in their national context and through international organizations, such as the United Nations, the International Missionary Conference, and the World Council of Churches.


  1. “Cleveland Strikes Out!”, editorial, The Christian Century, March 23, 1949, 359-60.

  2. Gene Zubovich, “The Global Gospel: Protestant Internationalism and American Liberalism, 1940-1960,” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2015, 143-46.

  3. The Churches and American Policy in the Far East (New York: Federal Council of Churches, 1949).

  4. A Message from the National Study Conference on the Churches and a Just and Durable Peace, March 3-5, 1942, reprinted as “Appendix B in John Nurser, For All Peoples and All Nations: The Ecumenical Church and Human Rights (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2005), 187.

  5. George Dugan, “End of Racial Segregation Asked by Churches’ Council: Church Council Hits Racial Bias,” New York Times, 4 Dec 1948, 1.; Martha J. Hall, “Protestant Council Indorses Complete End of Segregation: Segregation End Indorsed,” Washington Post, 4 Dec 1949, 1.; “Church Council Fully Approves Nonsegregation,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 4, 1948, A3.