Editor’s note: A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Will you be celebrating Natural Law this July 4th? You should be. Your Founding Fathers did.
In declaring their independence and asserting their God-given rights, the Founding Fathers—particularly the pen of Thomas Jefferson—acknowledged the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” These were no minor things. Indeed, maintained the Founders, you were entitled to them. (These were days when an entitlement meant something rather than any new thing.) The Founders believed that, in the course of human events, they had at long last arrived at that point where they and their countrymen could rightfully assume these rights “among the Powers of the Earth.” They were not only declaring their independence from the British Crown (itself a huge deal); they were asserting self-evident truths and claiming certain unalienable rights that were theirs not only as Americans but as humans.
So, what of this Natural Law stuff? What did and does it mean? And why does it still matter?
“There can be no doubt that those delegates in Philadelphia who adopted that Declaration believed in, and based the nation’s independence on, the Natural Law,” states Robert Barker, professor emeritus of law at Duquesne University, and an eloquent expert on the subject. Addressing the American Founders Lecture Series, held quarterly at Pittsburgh’s Rivers Club by the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College, Barker defines Natural Law thusly: “God, in creating the universe, implanted in the nature of man a body of law to which all human beings are subject, which is superior to manmade law, and which is knowable by human reason.”
The Natural Law as understood by the Founders, says Barker, was the same that for two millennia had been a “traditional and essential” element of Western civilization.
To illustrate the point, Barker marshals the likes of Aquinas, Sophocles, Aristotle, and Cicero. Among them, he cites Sophocles’ play Antigone, where the heroine (of the same name), condemned to death by an unjust king, informed the king that he was violating a superior, natural law. “I had to choose between your law and God’s law,” she told the king, “and no matter how much power you have to enforce your law, it is inconsequential next to God’s. His laws are eternal, not merely for the moment. No mortal, not even you, may annul the laws of God.”
As Aristotle put it, the Natural Law is a universal law that transcends earthly regimes and stands common to all human beings, “even when there is no community to bind them to one another.”
Cicero saw Natural Law as true law. He wrote: “True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting…. It is a sin to try to alter this law … and it is impossible to abolish it entirely.” He added that “whoever is disobedient” to the Natural Law “is fleeing from himself and denying his human nature.”
The Natural Law is profound and profoundly true. Sadly, it has been profoundly ignored and rejected by modern liberals/progressives and the nation as a whole. We could rattle off a litany of examples, but a major one occurring right now is the issue of “same-sex marriage.” The idea of a man and a man or a woman and a woman marrying one another is an unequivocal violation of the Natural Law. It is an arrangement gravely contrary to human nature. Unfortunately, today’s liberals/progressives could care less; they are fine with happily embracing any and all violations of Natural Law in pursuit of their own new, enlightened laws. It’s part of that glorious “fundamental transformation” of America.
Beyond liberals/progressives, there are countless millions of ordinary Americans who likewise could care less. Their idea of America and July 4th is hot dogs, beer, and fireworks. Natural Law? Sounds boring.
Well, it isn’t. Few things are actually as exhilarating, uplifting, redeeming. Think about it: the Creator implanted in you—that is, in your very nature—a body of truth and law to which you and all human beings are subject; it is superior to manmade law, and it is accessible and knowable by human reason. Sounds like something worth knowing.
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College, executive director of The Center for Vision & Values, and New York Times best-selling author of the book, “The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor.” His other books include "The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism" and "Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century."