Pillar: Politics & Law

Politics & Law

The third pillar of a decent society is a just system of politics and law. Such a government does not bind all persons, families, institutions of civil society, and actors in the marketplace to itself as subservient features of an all-pervading authority. Instead, it honors and protects the inherent equal dignity of all persons, safeguards the family as the primary school of virtue, and seeks justice through the rule of law.

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Worth the Price: Colonial Catholics, Religious Tolerance, and the Post-Liberal Right

Catholics in colonial America pioneered a vision of liberty of conscience grounded in human dignity that would eventually be affirmed as doctrine by the second Vatican Council. A new book by Michael Breidenbach illustrates how unsettled the issue of papal temporal authority was in the founding era, and how damaging papal insistence on it was to the survival of Catholic minorities in English and colonial life.


Reclaiming the Judging in Judgment: A Response to Christopher Wolfe

To say that the Supreme Court exercises “mere judgment” belies the gravity of its power and the weight of its opinions. Judgment requires more than a mechanical application of the law. It requires, as Sherbert recognized but Smithignored, that judges determine whether a state’s particular interest is more or less compelling than an individual’s particular right.


When Conscience Is Attacked, the Ground Beneath Us Shakes

Moral and ethical reflection, making normative sense of the world and striving to live accordingly, is an essential part of being human. Public leaders need to better grasp the role that conscience rights play in a free and democratic society. If they do not, freedom of conscience and the kind of society we cherish will eventually disappear.


Public Monuments and Public Memory

Monuments answer questions about which parts of our history we choose to make into a public heritage—which strands of the past we choose to bring into the present in order to shape and form the future. Taking down monuments is not a choice to forget the past. It is a choice not to honor certain elements of our past in public.


The Smith Case, Religious Freedom, and Originalism

One might wish that the Free Exercise Clause, as originally understood, had provided a basis for more judicial protection of religious rights than it does. But wishing doesn’t make it so. Judges don’t have the authority to interpret the Constitution to get better policy results, even if those are really, really important results.


What Confucius’s Li Can Teach the West about Law

One cannot simply coerce social change by commanding substantive ends in positive law. Rather, human law can facilitate social change by rewarding or punishing certain actions and thereby also communicating the value of that action. Law does not so much dictate values as habituate them by encouraging their practice.


Social Darwinism and the Natural Law

One way of understanding the social Darwinists’ enterprise is to view it as an attempt to reintegrate science and philosophy, which had been torn asunder by modernity. While they seek this reintegration, they do so on uniquely modern terms: Philosophy is reduced to empirical, naturalistic science, that is, to the process, without the ends, or essences, or highest things. Their notion is that we can reduce human sciences, including politics, to relatively simple principles. This is contrary to the Aristotelian or ancient view, which held that politics is much harder than physics precisely because one must take into account unpredictable behavior, as well as choice-worthy purposive behavior toward complex ends—rather than more predictable motions and processes toward simple ends.


Natural Law and American Civil Rights Movements

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.”


American Constitutions: Natural Law and Constitution-Making in the Founding Era

In order to understand the role of natural law in the American founding, it is helpful to examine the early state constitutions that preceded the US Constitution. Not only did many of them explicitly recognize natural rights as pre-political rights to which all individuals are entitled, they also proclaimed all political power to be inherent in the people, governments to be legitimate only insofar as they secure these rights and are grounded in popular authority, and, therefore, that the people have an inalienable right to reform or abolish such governments that fail or cease to serve these ends.


The Protestant Reformers and the Natural Law Tradition

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.


Freedom’s Law: A Primer on Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism

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.


Not a National Family: Critical Race Theory, Civic Education, and the Ties That Bind

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.

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