It was on the foundation of St. Augustine’s natural law theory, then, that Martin Luther King, Jr. discovered the grounds of civil disobedience: “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of Harmony with the moral law.” Nor did he stop there. He invoked Aquinas, Martin Buber, Socrates, Tillich, and Niebuhr (among other authorities) to establish that the claim he defended was not a parochial claim merely derived from majority rule. To defend civil rights for black people meant to prove that “segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.”
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However deeply entrenched the natural law’s neglect or opposition is among today’s Protestants, it cannot be attributed to the magisterial Reformers of the sixteenth century. Although it is decidedly true that they championed a particular understanding of grace and faith that took issue with their Roman Catholic counterparts, this was not to the exclusion of other vehicles of divine agency. Rather, they assumed the natural law as a part of the fabric of the created order and therein maintained continuity with those across the Reformation divide.
All this week Public Discourse will be republishing select essays from "Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism," a project of the Witherspoon Institute that was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of its "We the People" initiative. At a time when we have called our traditions and history into question, we provide a primer into the history of our people and our ways of properly understanding freedom and the liberal order.
Every human lives out the drama of existence in his or her way, and with great risk: they gain or lose heaven, embrace or reject love, bring a child into being or not, form friendships and romances or sink into loneliness, become sages or fools. If we forget or forgo the primacy of the person, choosing instead the story of power and chaos, it seems likely we’ll lose the cosmos of our own souls.
If a shared identity is to emerge and persist, if citizen strangers are to have a shot at becoming civic friends who recognize a mutual obligation to create a just land, the foundational principles of our constitutional order must be consciously taught and reaffirmed. And, of course, teaching and affirming these principles does not itself entail a claim that America has historically lived up to them.
Given modernity’s inability to realize Augustine’s thesis of the necessity of a common love, we have two options: we must either reject a universal socio-political vision as entirely unworkable, or the world—or at least the West—must learn again that a transcendent foundation and telos are essential to political order.
A recent dissent by Justice Kavanaugh and the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia offer a roadmap for litigants seeking religious liberty exemptions.
Although the ideas presented in The Concept of Social Justice are just a start, they provide a crucial foundation for the salvific and eternal work that Catholics must complete in the political arena.
Bill Cosby’s release is a consequence of a criminal justice system run by insiders seeking efficient results. This debacle sheds light on the disappointing state of our criminal justice system, the overly wide latitude afforded to prosecutors, and the mechanical way in which the system operates.
A healthy political community must find ways to reflect on and revise its founding myth. Actions in legislatures and state education boards are proxy arguments over the future of our constituting narrative. For catalyzing this, we should be grateful to critical race theory—for its insight, for its limitations, and even for its clarity-inducing confusions.
Robert P. George is the leading conservative advocate of the importance of good faith dialogue with those he calls “reasonable people of good will” on all sides of the political spectrum. But is such dialogue still possible in our new woke environment?
Used to be the Democrats called themselves the “Party of the Little Guy.” Today, I think that’s us. As the Democrats move farther and farther to the left, I think they’re scaring normal people. If their party keeps acting crazy, scaring regular people, and we don’t—if we just act on principle with a smile on our face, articulating a vision that allows Americans to thrive, while they keep pushing the latest idea from the Harvard Faculty Lounge—well, I think our vision will win out.
Defenders of the free exercise of religion need to accept that we are playing a long game. Religious freedom is winning, even if the Court’s religious freedom jurisprudence develops over the span of more than one term.
In her new book, Erika Bachiochi presents a compelling vision of female equality and happiness that embraces a woman’s capacity for childbearing and encourages sexual virtue and strong marriages as an antidote to difficulties that abortion can never hope to solve.
Unless and until the excesses of authenticity culture are able to be moderated, we can expect the widespread relational fragmentation, loneliness, and loss that flows from it to continue unabated. Nevertheless, authenticity should not be discarded as an ideal. Instead, we must articulate a more constructive and reasonable conception of authenticity that can be passed on to the next generation.
Encouraging people to be gracious, and to recognize what others have provided them through no merit of their own, is not about “guilt tripping” them. It is to encourage a particular way of existing in the world. Gratitude acknowledges the plenitude of goodness that surrounds us every moment of every day in millions of small acts of people we do not know.
The resolution on abortion that was passed at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville was well-intended but woefully flawed. It offers no exception for the life of the mother, and it opposes incrementalism. Those two items are serious shortcomings that would lead to the loss of more innocent lives, not fewer.
Reparations for racial injustice are necessary, but they will be effective only on a local level, not a national one.
Who would deny that liberalism is falling apart, that the center is not holding, or that a vindictive and evangelistic progressivism is afoot? If so, the natural law cannot but feel like feeble comfort. Still, some of us are unwilling to reject public reason or the hopefulness of John Courtney Murray, for we never assumed his optimism was naivete.
When things are falling apart, anything that stays together starts to look strange. Vows, habits of self-discipline, manners of dress and address—all the essential elements of cultural formation—can come to seem like the arcane demands of a cult. To rebuild our common life, we will have to learn to distinguish between mindless cults and mindful cultures.
I would venture to say that Europeans and Americans are confronting a spiritual conundrum. How does an immense civilization examine its conscience? How do nations and societies confess and atone for their sins?
While it is good that legal systems have become more sensitive to the psychological effects of the law on participants in the legal process, we should be wary of claims that assert that no-fault divorce is “therapeutic” for divorcing couples or their children. Advocates for the sanctity of marriage across the globe should pay close attention to this shift.
Sex makes marriage much more than just friendship with “benefits.” The sexual excitement, the powerful bonding, the oneness, the potential creation of human life, even the vulnerability—all of this alchemizes friendship and sexual attraction into marriage. We have been separating sex from marriage for decades now, with foreseeable destruction. This latest innovation adds more fuel to the inferno.
Critical Race Theory rightly calls us to recognize that the effects of sin can be magnified throughout the institutions and social structures erected by individuals, leading to social systems that embody unjust racial prejudices. However, by focusing on sin as embodied with or without intent in social systems, proponents of CRT lose sight of what makes sin so wrong in the first place: that individuals who bear a moral accountability before God break his moral law.
It is wrong to force religious individuals who are highly skilled medical and mental health professionals to violate their core religious convictions by compelling them to support and participate in terminating life, or in elective therapies that seek fundamentally to alter the human person, whether to achieve transgender ends or transhumanist ones.