Samuel Moyn recounts the unlikely trajectory of one of the key figures behind the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
So Jacques Maritain was one of the great Roman Catholic thinkers and publicists of the 20th century. He wasn’t directly involved in the makings of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but he did talk a lot about the principles. Starting in 1942 when his argument on behalf of human rights was actually dropped in leaflet form into occupied France – his country from which he was in exile – through the years after World War II. He was probably the intellectual of any kind, secular or religious, who said most and said the most positive things about human rights in this era of history.
Now his trajectory is very interesting. He had been a Protestant by birth and a secular republican in France – that was the heritage of his parents, politically. But like a number of others in the early part of the 20th century, he converted to Roman Catholicism. So did his wife, a Russian Jew. And they both became political reactionaries – and quite amazingly we find early in his thought, in the 1920s, not just an embrace of an openly reactionary political movement called the Action Française, but also anti-Semitic statements.
And then he learned – because this group that he had joined was condemned by the pope, actually, and he had a choice: would he be a political reactionary, or would he loyally follow the Roman Catholic church’s ban? And he decided on the latter course. And this forced him to think about what the relationship was between Christianity and politics in a new way. He still thought Christianity should inform a quite conservative vision of our social relations, but he also thought that faith meant that you could never fully submit to any secular state. And in particular, individuals might need to be protected against that state. And so when he was forced to flee France – or stay in the United States, where he was, because his wife was racially a Jew, according to the Nazi conception of the period – he agitated for human rights almost before anyone else. And he became quite important as a philosopher making the case for why these principles matter even to Christians.