Samuel Moyn explains the push for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a response to both the past and the future.
People are interested in the past. It’s not, as people will often say, the past of the Holocaust and the murder of the Jews, because people don’t know much about it yet, and – to the extent they do know – don’t care. I think their concern is more about mistakes they may have made, and maybe guilt about them. So when you have Adolf Hitler supported by so many Protestants – and Catholics too – and Christians thinking that liberalism, political liberalism and democracy are obsolete and choosing to build their own authoritarianisms, like in Austria, Spain, and Portugal, there are going to be a lot of Christians when we get to the ’40s who think they made a mistake. They’ve seen where that leads; it’s bad for the church and maybe for Christian values, as much as for the world in general. And so my sense is that it’s specifically Christians who are interested in human rights in the 1940s because they think they’ve erred and they want to correct Christian politics.
But we should also add that they are in a new battle, and they’re in a battle against secular socialism. So this is the moment when the Cold War is crystallising. It was the Soviet Union that had really beaten the National Socialists on the field of battle, and secular socialism is popular even when it doesn’t take communist form. I think a lot of Christians at this time are guilty about the past, but they’re also terrified about the future, and human rights are going to be a way of saying, the state has to have limits. It has to leave room for religion in general and Christianity in particular, and this is the moment when human rights become popular.