On the evolution of the modern human rights movement

Samuel Moyn tracks the shift from human rights as a very Christian to a very secular concern.



Samuel Moyn tracks the shift from human rights as a very Christian to a very secular concern.


In the 1940s there was no human rights movement that we see. We do see human rights concerns – political matters that are addressed in terms of these new human rights that are being proclaimed at the United Nations and elsewhere. A good example of that is the internment of a Hungarian cardinal named József Mindszenty by the communists. And because the west – those Christian countries I mentioned – controls the United Nations for a few years, there are human rights resolutions that dramatise Mindszenty’s fate.

And yet we really associate human rights with something else today, that grew up decades later. Actually it was a Christian convert named Peter Benenson who founded the first NGO for human rights – the first non-governmental organisation to promote human rights of any real importance – called Amnesty International. And there are some Christian legacies in the organisation; it wasn’t accidental that Amnesty International called its concern “prisoners of conscience”, or that some of its imagery was not just barbed wire but the candle that would need to be lit. And many Amnesty International members lit candles for interned prisoners abroad.

But by our time, it seems as if most human rights activism is associated not just with secular people – they may be Christians in private, but the organisations are not Christian – but they’re also associated with the progressive cause. They’re another way of pursuing liberal or progressive politics, often in a global picture. And so the interesting thing is how human rights in the ’40s were announced at this moment of fear to conserve a kind of Christian past, or a version of the Christian past that had learnt from its mistakes. While today they often are about more emancipation, more secularisation for those who defend them.