As the Democratic Party at the national level moves further into abortion extremism and the exclusion of those who dissent, it is hard to imagine the party embracing a more moderate and inclusive stance. But electoral consequences in the 2022 midterms could prompt this awakening.
Pillar: 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.
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.
Roe could be reversed in one of two strongly pro-life ways. The Court could declare that the child is a fellow human being and a person, and is thus constitutionally protected prior to birth. Or the Court could in effect encourage each state to recognize the child as one of us. The latter could well be politically preferable.
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.
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.
The history put forward in abortion litigation by advocates of abortion has never been about history. By their own admission, they “fudge it as necessary,” keeping up “the guise of impartial scholarship while advancing the proper ideological goals.”
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.
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.
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.
Reason without faith inevitably eats itself and the human persons it claims to serve.
The virtue of civility finds expression in the readiness to accept differences in those cases in which no common ground may be found. I can valorize my national particularity without the need either to demolish yours or to agree with your reasons for valorizing yours.
If we understand that truth is inherently tentative and provisional and acknowledge that we must cultivate intellectual humility, we could mitigate many of the worst repercussions of social media on politics.
Human rights, including women’s rights, are not determined by whoever is in charge. They are perpetual and fundamental. American calls for gender equality around the world ring hollow without hard security to back them up.
John Rawls cannot get to the most fundamental issues of political philosophy because that would entail a comprehensive theory, which is too divisive, in his own view, to serve as the basis for a public philosophy.
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.
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.”
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.
To those who wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence, political liberty and natural law went together: Nature summons man, individually and collectively, to self-government and guides him in the exercise of his power of choice.
Natural law thinking profoundly shaped the way American and British leaders approached issues involving rights, sovereignty, and constitutional government. However, the imperial authorities and their colonial opponents often appealed to different, and even conflicting, strains of the natural law tradition.
Like cousins who resemble one another, common law and natural law are sometimes confused. There is in fact a deep affinity between common law and natural law, but it is better at the outset to describe their differences, and best to do this historically.
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.
Law, of its various sorts, has a role to play in humans’ full realization of their nature by free acts. What role? To ask this question is to seek to grasp Thomas’s natural law teaching in the context of his overall metaphysical cosmology.
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.
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.
One Nation Conservatism is itself a type of fusionism, a traditionalist-progressive mix rather than a traditionalist–classical liberal one. Traditionalists should not abandon a pragmatic alliance with the latter for intellectual commitment to the former.