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Christian Human Rights (Intellectual History of the Modern Age)
Christian Human Rights (Intellectual History of the Modern Age)
Samuel Moyn
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015
264 pp., $24.95

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John Witte, Jr.


The Long History of Human Rights

Assessing an influential revisionist account.

An anguished picture of Jesus adorns the cover of Samuel Moyn's latest book. Entitled Christ aux outrages by French Catholic expressionist Georges Rouault, this painting shows a deformed Jesus with a crown of thorns on his head and streaks of blood dripping down. Large, pained, dark, liquid eyes stare out into the distance. A vaguely formed mouth is set in a hard grimace. The flesh tones of his head, neck, and shoulders are slashed through with blotches of blue and green, as if bruised. Immense suffering and sadness exude from this Christ aux outrages—this Christ figure subject to the mocking, beatings, and other outrages he suffered on the way to the cross. Yet, on the book jacket, Rouault's depiction of Christ bears the flat English title Head of Christ.

This prosaic translation may well be the hasty work of a museum curator or cover designer. But it's an apt metaphor for how the deep, complex, layered, and subtle history of Christianity and human rights over two millennia is flattened out in this revisionist history by the distinguished Harvard historian Samuel Moyn. Professor Moyn has had a sensational run of publications over the past decade, attracting very wide attention. His 2005 titles on Levinas and the Treblinka affair got respectful nods. But it was his bold 2010 book from Harvard University Press, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, and a score of follow-up articles and anthologies that have put him front and center on the academic stage. His new companion monograph Christian Human Rights will keep him there a while longer.

In The Last Utopia, Moyn argued provocatively that human rights emerged only in the 1970s and then as a new form of moral idealism and utopianism, virtually without precedent. Here for the first time the world embraced "a set of global political norms providing the creed of a transnational social movement." Suddenly, everyone from politicians and popes to philosophers and reporters were talking about human ...

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