For every phenomenon there is an indefinite, if not infinite, number of both continuities and discontinuities with what came before. To assert continuity, therefore, could not possibly exclude discontinuity altogether—or vice versa. It is only to assert what truth deserves our attention in the mix of overwhelmingly trivial relationships. The only arguments that matter, therefore, are why continuities or discontinuities are important, or interesting, or both.

In The Last Utopia, the stress fell on discontinuity. Against current impressions, I claimed that it is important and interesting that as of the late 1960s no one anticipated our current age of human rights politics. Most of the factors may have been assembled, some long before; nonetheless, what transpired in the decade that followed was an astonishing novelty, experienced as such and normalized only by later historians.

In Christian Human Rights, forthcoming in September 2015, it is shocking—if not scandalous—continuity that seems worth emphasizing. So I dwell not only on the preponderant role of Christians in the elaboration of human rights in the 1930s and 1940s but also on how far the social and political projects those Christians sponsored in the name of human rights maintained the fundamentals of their previous agendas. Even some of the major changes Christians introduced in their politics during and after World War II, I contend, were made for the sake of deeper conservation.

I am extraordinarily grateful to the respondents in this discussion. I learned a great deal from their searching commentaries, and generally take on board the many insightful observations made across the diverse posts. This level of engagement is a gift that is rare and undeserved—something no one could take lightly. In revisiting my original suggestions about what ought to matter in these debates, this first post concerns the story through the 1930s and 1940s; the next will take up that era and since, when I am forced to confront the most serious difficulty, which is how far the contemporary critique of secularism goes.

A number of those posting about antediluvian affairs assert long-term continuity of human rights back into the Christian past, whether out of identifiably Christian motives or not. They think this undermines my portrait of Christians inventing human rights in the 1930s and 1940s for conservative purposes, or just allows them to bypass the argument. I entirely agree with those commentators about the deep lineages of human rights, which are more and more plausible the more abstract you get. (It is just that the more abstract you get, the more trivial the continuities become.) I have always noted, as Nicholas Wolterstorff valuably does here, that deep backgrounds are particularly obvious when it comes to the very idea of a natural right, as well as to the value substance of various items on current lists of norms. Relying on prior scholars like Brian Tierney, Wolterstorff accurately points to the fact that some medieval Christian philosophers and lawyers trafficked in natural rights notions within their larger theories of natural law.

But along with John Witte, who has stressed the contributions of the Protestant Reformation, Wolterstorff appears to think you can beat a claim of interesting and important continuity of conservatism in the invention of Christian human rights across the 1930s and 1940s by saying that at a more abstract level rights were an enduring lexicon stretching back to less unattractive sources, from Jesus Christ to John Locke. That seems a non sequitur. It ignores that long-term continuities at a highly abstract level of analysis are useless to get a bead on troubling shorter-term continuities.

More aggressively put, it is a dodge: a strategy that normalizes a surprising and potentially unsavory continuity—or avoids confronting it altogether—by appealing to an obvious and more anodyne perenniality. It suppresses what is interesting about where human rights have come from to make them more palatable in their current uses, and perhaps for the desired Christian future.

For Christians who want Christianity to be a big part of the reason why human rights are so pervasive today, human rights history provides the occasion for pride rather than humility. Wolterstorff asserts that even if my disturbing story of Christian human rights in the 1930s and 1940s is true, there are a great many uplifting stories of Christian human rights to recall. Rather boldly, Witte ignores the disturbance altogether and embraces my showing that midcentury Christians were so deeply influential in human rights as an edifying lesson that secularists need to acknowledge religious contributions more generously! Their responses instill the usual humility for genealogists: it is tough to force people to take seriously the unwelcome sources of their values, and I have not succeeded when it comes to these two important contemporary Christian intellectuals.

Myself, I continue to prefer to focus on modern history. The notion that medieval churchmen and Reformation divines were continuous in their rights talk with the French Revolution is true in some trivial ways but misses the point of the event—even if the latter could never have occurred without its own prior basis. Too much changed, including within the language of rights, to make long-term continuity the important story. Correspondingly, emphasis on bridges across the divide of modernity—ignoring how repressive Christianity generally was, whatever its inadvertent contributions to secular modernity—also distracts from the contentious politics of the re-Christianization of rights in the middle of the twentieth century.

I can grasp what motivates engaged Christians to focus on abstraction in order to elude possible disturbance, but Dan Edelstein has to be a different case, because he presumably asserts the endurance of natural law on other grounds. So let’s take a closer look—after putting aside the distraction that anybody has ever asserted absolute and incommensurable discontinuity sine matrem createm (“born without a mother”). (The fact that everyone has a mother is one of those trivialities not worth mentioning when compared to the truth that different people then go on to such radically distinctive lives.)

In his local historiographical battles, I understand that the dix-huitièmiste in Edelstein is facing down a literature that, as Knud Haakonssen already argued very compellingly, has made the era’s rich discourse unintelligible because of an overemphasis on allegedly standalone natural rights or even human rights discourse at that date. I have been entirely willing to combat this tendency myself. But what ultimately matters is why it is of broader interest or importance to rectify this omission, as Edelstein seems set on doing in his current project. Absolutely: Christians originally discovered natural rights within natural law discourses that endured for a while. What I fail to see so far is the larger significance of this claim, given the massive disjunction that revolutionary human rights had already introduced compared to the Christian past, and which was only to become greater—until the moment of Christian human rights in the middle of the twentieth century saw the fire doused.

I might take this opportunity to explain why I have long since given up the belief that a merely conceptual, philological, or textual account of natural or human rights gets very far, whether in the premodern age or the twentieth century. In a radical break from his Cambridge school origins, Richard Tuck—whose superseded youthful book Edelstein criticizes—also broke from his initial account of the origins of natural rights in late Scholastic thought. Turning on his simple appropriation of Michel Villey, Tuck also turned to emphasize that the wolf of modern natural rights merely presented itself, in the theories of Hugo Grotius and others, in the sheep’s clothing of natural law notions of Christian vintage. You have to look beyond the continuity of languages to find discontinuity of projects, Tuck now contended. I think John Milbank agrees, with some interesting and valuable complications, that what we ought to care about is not cosmetic or philological parallelism between one phrase or concept and another but the fact that people have used the same notions in radically different settings for the sake of radically different projects. After the Middle Ages, rights eventually became a pivotal modern language of liberation. While Witte is obviously correct that the Reformation made a huge contribution to this development, its unintended consequences are the plainest outcome, and the rise of a secular liberatory project around rights seems like the really important thing to care about. How did Christianity sow the seeds of its own undoing, becoming—as Marcel Gauchet famously observed—the religion that allowed an opening beyond religion?

Tracking that development inevitably forces analysis beyond a philology of texts to study the uses of concepts like rights in politics. I would even credit Tuck, as well as Gauchet, for going furthest to pioneer a broadly anthropological account of the origins of rights, asking what sorts of people had to emerge to make liberating modern claims of human rights possible and believable, and under what conditions. Lynn Hunt also took an anthropological tack, famously focusing on changing emotional regimes; but, without much expertise, I favor the approach of Gauchet and Tuck identifying the rise of post-Renaissance states as the main condition, in which texts reflected a broader new culture of selfhood modeled on those new kinds of aggressive sovereigns.

In the face of such literature, Edelstein seems on perfectly firm ground in insisting, like Tierney on medieval history and Haakonssen on the eighteenth century, that natural law in an originally Christian idiom hardly just vacated the territory when new natural rights claims arose, since both long coexisted harmoniously. But eventually the balance of forces changed radically. Of their natural law host, human rights eventually had no more need.

Indeed, the emergence of what I am calling Christian human rights in the middle of the twentieth century presupposed a clear recognition that natural rights had eventually become one index of the emergence of a new modern agent unfettered from the confining shackles of past naturalisms, with new claims based on the exercise of personal autonomy or the satisfaction of individual preferences that had been anathema to all prior versions of morality—not least all prior forms of Christian natural law.

In turn, it is precisely that drama that the invention of Christian human rights in the mid-twentieth century tried to preempt. Of course it is eminently true (but potentially trivial) to say, as Edelstein does, that paleo-Christian human rights had to be recognizable enough in the deep past to be candidates for later appropriation. But this truth hardly rules out and may even amplify the burning interest of noting Jacques Maritain’s coy and strategic reclamation of natural law in 1942 as the best framework for “human rights.” Maritain may have been intellectually closer to St. Thomas Aquinas than the many moderns who have learned to assert subjective rights outside a larger commitment to objective natural law. Yet saying so (which is not saying a lot) hardly absolves us of the responsibility to figure out how Maritain’s surprising reclamation of rights within natural law—in a two front war against Catholics who wanted natural law by itself and “liberals” who had defended human rights on their own—fit with the political agenda that reclamation sponsored.

Carlo Invernizzi Accetti also weighs in on this debate, offering a take both less continuous and more continuous than mine. On the one hand, he sees natural law as definitionally excluding human rights (and vice versa). All Maritain and others could do was to deviously relabel the one as the other, without altering their necessary mutual exclusion. Like Villey, and later Leo Strauss, Accetti sees the twain of premodern natural law and early modern natural rights never meeting across many centuries, except as a kind of sham illusion Maritain brought about to keep liberalism at bay. Precisely as Edelstein says, this sort of view ignores that natural law and natural rights went together for a long time. On the other hand, when he addresses the 1940s, Accetti presents natural law as simply a wolf that took on the sheep’s clothing of natural rights, for which “liberals” remained the authentic partisans.

To explain why that doesn’t work either, the next post will turn from the medieval and early modern respondents to those concerned with the 1930s and 1940s and the time since.